Two University of Virginia professors who played a significant role in this week’s Flint, Michigan, water crisis lawsuit settlement are being applauded around the country.
Gail Lovette and Bill Therrien, professors in UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, worked pro bono on the case for nearly four years, analyzing how increased exposure to lead in Flint’s municipal water supply affected children’s learning.
On Thursday, they saw their work pay off in the form of a $600 million settlement with the State of Michigan and other defendants that includes at least $9 million in new funding for special education programs in Flint Community Schools and surrounding school districts that educate special education students who were on the Flint water lines.
Lovette and Therrien called the result a “testament to the people of Flint.”
“Parents and teachers – some at potential great risk because they were still employed by the schools – stood up for their community’s children and students,” Therrien said.
The two professors were part of the litigation efforts of the ACLU of Michigan, the Education Law Center and the New York-based global law firm White and Case. They spent time in Flint, speaking with educators and families and reviewing documents associated with the schools and districts.
Therrien focused on evaluating the special education processes put in place after the water crisis, while Lovette analyzed the state-, district-, and school-level response in terms of the structures and resources available to Flint teachers and school leaders to support the students in the public schools.
“I thought they were just an unbeatable team,” said Lindsay Heck, one of the lead attorneys with White and Case. “With Gail’s expertise in turnaround schools and Bill’s expertise in special education, they just provided us with all of the angles and all the pieces that we needed for the comprehensive overhaul of the special education system in Flint that we were hoping to achieve because it is a system that was failing the students and failing the community for years, before the water crisis, and then it was only compounded in the wake of the water crisis when the needs of the students surged.”
Lovette and Therrien went above and beyond, according to Heck and fellow lead attorney Greg Little from the Education Law Center. The duo wrote expert reports for each part of the case, gave depositions, contributed to team brainstorming sessions and continue to participate in talks regarding the terms of the settlement and distribution of the funds.
“We were just so impressed,” Heck said. “There have been times in this case where we’ve been moving for emergency relief, and time has been of the absolute essence, and Bill and Gail have flown out to Flint on the drop of a dime to interview people and to collect data for their reports, which were extremely compelling and helped us achieve the results that we did.”
UVA Today caught up with Lovette and Therrien to learn more about the case.
Q. Is this pretty gratifying to see all your hard work pay off? What’s your reaction to the settlement?
Lovette: Being a part of this truly groundbreaking case and settlement for the children of Flint has been an incredibly moving and humbling experience. Over the past four years, we met many dedicated families, teachers and community members who have all been, and continue to be, impacted in really significant ways by the ongoing lead crisis.
Five years later, there is still not clean drinking water for all residents of Flint. Even though it has felt like much of the country has moved on from Flint since the revelation that thousands of its residents were subjected to prolonged lead poisoning, Bill and I have had the privilege to really bear witness to not only the widespread damage caused, but also to the resiliency of the Flint community.
Therrien: It’s very gratifying. We’ve been working on this case for almost four years. But as Gail pointed out, this settlement is a testament to the people of Flint. Parents and teachers – some at potential great risk because they were still employed by the schools – stood up for their community’s children and students.
The parents were the reason why the case was brought in the first place, they pushed for the case to continue over many years and for the ultimate resolution. Without them, none of this would have happened.
Q. Why did you feel so strongly about getting involved with this back in 2017?
Therrien: We were fortunate enough to be asked to be involved. I can’t imagine an educator, at any level, being unwilling to assume a role like this. Work with families and teachers to ensure their children receive the education they deserve? Of course, we said yes. I was honored, quite honestly.
Lovette: At that time, my work at Curry with persistently low-achieving schools and my own experiences as an educator in public schools really helped me to analyze some of the systemic and systematic challenges that Flint Community Schools faced. When the ACLU asked us to become officially involved in the case as experts, there was really no way that I could turn them down. Like Bill, any opportunity to apply my knowledge and experiences in a meaningful way that effects important change and improves outcomes for children is truly an honor.
Q. Overall, what were your findings about how Flint children were impacted by the high levels of lead in the water system? How did the lead crisis affect the schools?
Therrien: Lead can have different effects depending on when the child was impacted and the length and dose of exposure. While effects are idiosyncratic and vary from child to child, common difficulties include behavioral and attentional concerns and learning difficulties.
But this is what special education is for. With support and intensive, evidence-based instruction from effective and trained educators, children can overcome these difficulties.
Unfortunately, we found that despite the known impacts of lead, fewer children were being evaluated and found eligible for special education services than before the lead crisis.
Lovette: In addition to what Bill describes above, there were really school and district factors that exacerbated these impacts for the children of Flint and prevented them from receiving adequate supports in their schools.
Even before the lead crisis, the Flint Community Schools were grappling with deep budget cuts caused by the closing of local auto plants and factories; persistent teacher vacancies and shortages, especially in critical areas such as special education; constant leadership turnover at the school and district levels; and poor academic outcomes for students. These issues continued to worsen as the water crisis persisted and have really impeded the schools’ ability to effectively support and teach their students.
The teachers we met over the years described really difficult conditions, along with a scarcity of resources. One told us that the highest levels of lead in Flint were found in the water fountain inside her kindergarten classroom, while another spoke of her class pet dying from lead poisoning. The schools were significantly understaffed and some teachers had class sizes into the 40s on days when there were not enough staff in the school.
Q. How do you think this settlement will help the issues you described above?
Lovette: We are actually working with the legal teams and the school districts right now to help determine that. The landmark 2018 partial settlement that was reached in the case established a dedicated center for the children of Flint that provides neuropsychological evaluations for effects of lead poisoning along with comprehensive support for the families and collaboration with the local schools. That was a huge victory in terms of providing access to testing to determine the extent of support that Flint schoolchildren may need to ensure that they receive a free and appropriate public education.
Now that the entire case has settled, Flint Community Schools, along with other districts serving children who were on the Flint water system, can utilize the funds in this settlement to work to build the capacity of their educators. These funds will provide resources to support the significant needs of the students impacted by lead. And, most importantly, this settlement acknowledges that this community has suffered tremendously and that their children are entitled to an effective education.
Q. What, if anything, can the Flint case teach our education systems around the country?
Therrien: It shows us that a community can stand up for itself, band together and ensure that our educational system and government provide our children with the education they deserve. It provides us with a legal path to follow if students, particularly students with disabilities, are not receiving an effective education. It makes it loud and clear that as a society we will not look away when an entire community is impacted by a neurotoxin; we value all children; and that education is a primary mechanism to uphold our values and ensure we do what's right.
Q. Any other big takeaways or something else you’d like to add?
Lovette: The Flint case really sets an important precedent. We know that lead poisoning is a critical issue in many cities and that it disproportionately impacts communities living in poverty and communities of color.
Like Flint, many of the schools in these communities are already struggling to overcome staggering funding gaps that cause systemic issues that further inhibit their ability to provide all students with an effective education – especially those impacted by lead. Many of the school funding models utilized across the country perpetuate these inequities.
We are at a crossroads in terms of the value that we, as a society, place on education and on supporting all of our children.