Michigan students are being suspended at especially high rates with one Flint child sent home more than fifty times.
Nakiya Wakes was moved to Flint, Michigan, from Battle Creek six years ago to live with her children’s father. Her son, Jaylon, who was five, had been diagnosed with attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which made him “more anxious, more easily frustrated, she said. “And he developed a tic.” The school couldn’t handle his behavior, so they repeatedly suspended the child.
“My son was suspended or sent home more than fifty times,” Wakes said. “When they stopped suspending him, they just called me every day to come get him.”
According to reports, suspensions in Flint rose from 144 in 2012-2013, the year before the water crisis began, and that number increased to 425 by 2018. Wakes didn’t know she had moved into the heart of a crisis. She believed this contributed to her son’s symptoms worsening after the move.
When Jaylon was 11, school officials called Wakes. She said, “I could hear my son screaming at the top of his lungs over the phone. They were like, ‘Yes, we’re having a problem. Three of us had to restrain your son.’ So, as soon as they said three people, I’m like, ‘Didn’t I tell you all not to put your hands on my child?’ Jaylon doesn’t like any parts of him being held down. He automatically goes into fight or flight. So, with three adults on a child? He was feeling it. That was just too much.”
Over three years, Jaylon attended three schools. Eventually, Wakes lost her job as an administrative assistant because she had to continually leave her position to pick up her son. It was impossible to keep a steady school environment or career.
“I’m trying to tell the school, ‘You cannot deny my son an education because of the lead water. He has an IEP (an individual education plan, which is required for students in special education).’ They didn’t care,” she said.
After that point, Wakes decided to home school Jaylon. She had him tested for heavy metals and found high levels of lead in his body.
“The children have definitely been impacted by the lead and also by the trauma and all of the things that have been a ripple effect from the Flint water crisis,” said Kristen Totten, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Michigan education attorney. “I’ve seen it manifest in children through behaviors that have been challenging and inexplicable. We have worked very closely with the teachers’ union and repeatedly they are telling us about the children coming into kindergarten not being able to write their names, and really struggling with letter formation. So, there are definitely some delays in preschool and kindergarten.”
Trotten added, “We need to pay very close attention to the psychological trauma that’s causing the children of Flint to first of all feel neglected, disposable.” One recently study found “ninety percent of teachers and principals across the Detroit Public Schools Community District reported that more than half their students have been impacted by trauma that impedes their learning.” She added, “ And we’ve had a lot of children experience their parents’ illnesses that could be related to the water. Just seeing their family members, the ones that are protective and strong for them, becoming weak and impacted and not being able to come up with any solutions or help the family.”