On October 18, 2016, families in Flint, Michigan, filed a class-action lawsuit against state and local education authorities based on ongoing, systemic violations of special education laws. The case, known as D.R. v. Michigan Department of Education, details numerous deficiencies in the provision of required services to students with disabilities in Flint and the imperative to address increased special education needs associated with the city’s crisis of lead-contaminated water.

The complaint was filed in federal court for the Eastern District of Michigan. It describes the origin of the lead crisis in 2014, when state officials authorized the use of corrosive water to supply the city of Flint, and the harmful effects of lead exposure, which impairs cognition and is associated with an array of learning and behavioral challenges. 

Affected families filed the legal action on behalf of tens of thousands of Flint students to challenge widespread violations of state and federal special education rights. These include the failure to identify and evaluate all Flint students in need of special education programs and services, failure to provide the necessary special education services in the least restrictive environment, and violations of the rights of students with disabilities in the imposition of school discipline, including illegal suspensions and expulsions.

Defendants in the case are the Michigan Department of Education, Flint Community Schools, and the Genesee Intermediate School District. The lawsuit seeks immediate action to ensure that all students who require special education are identified and provided with the programs and supports they need.

In December 2016, each defendant filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.  The court held a hearing on the motions in August 2017.  In September 2017, the court denied the defendants’ motions, ruling that plaintiffs did not have to exhaust administrative remedies because they sought systemic relief, and that the case should be allowed to proceed.

In October 2017, the plaintiffs filed a motion for preliminary injunction. The motion asks the court to order the defendants to immediately implement an effective system to identify and evaluate all Flint children with disabilities, as a necessary prerequisite to providing appropriate services and accommodations. This system would include provision of neuropsychological evaluations, which are uniquely able to detect deficits that students may have incurred as a result of lead poisoning. 

In addition to ELC, the Flint parents and children are represented pro bono by the ACLU of Michigan and the White & Case law firm in New York City.