January 6, 2019; Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH)
No one has forgotten the story of Flint, Michigan, where toxins in the drinking water spread their negative impact across the city. But as NPQ has reported before, this problem is not solely Flint’s. It’s found across the nation, including Ohio, Michigan’s neighboring state.
Thousands of children enter kindergarten at Cleveland Public Schools already poisoned by lead. The Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve completed a research study that shows that more than 93.5 percent of children entering kindergarten had been exposed to lead. More than a quarter of the children screened, 25.7 percent, had a history of lead poisoning at or above the level where action is required. The report looked at 10,397 kindergartners enrolled from 2014 through 2017 and included only the Cleveland district, not charter, parochial, or private schools. Nevertheless, these are staggering numbers.
Lead poisoning can have long lasting effects on children, from their health, to their behavior, and their ability to learn. “Lead inhibits the bodies of growing children from absorbing iron, zinc and calcium, minerals essential to proper brain and nerve development,” according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which operates within the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children exposed to lead are more likely to have issues that demand heightened attention from the teachers in the schools and additional resources from the school district. And, as Steve Dubb pointed out back in October, discussing the poisoning of children through the use of lead paint in Syracuse, “Evidence is mounting that lead exposure increases violence.”
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So, what is being done? There is no set plan just yet. While many cities that must deal with the aftereffects of large amounts of lead—like Toledo, Ohio—recognize the need for both remediation and lead prevention as a solution to the problem and had no hesitation in passing ordinances to prevent its children from being poisoned at home, Cleveland struggles to garner support for just remediation. As the Plain Dealer reported in July 2017, “City legislation introduced in 2017 that would require rentals be ‘lead safe’ never got a hearing, and a plan to fund remediation in 10,000 homes in neighborhoods with the highest levels of lead poisoning failed to garner widespread support.”
The issue appears to be funding. A Cleveland Foundation-funded feasibility study showed that Cleveland community stakeholders, including the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, the Cleveland Clinic, and University Hospitals, could not unite around a remediation strategy paid for with social bonds. Social bonds, also known as pay-for-success bonds, are contracts in which a payor pays for improved social outcomes to an external organization. According to the study, “Despite enthusiasm to address this issue, it is unclear if it is enough of a priority to solicit shared ownership and allocations of funding.”
Cleveland continues to take up reactive, rather than preventative methods, training school nurses and psychologists on how to follow up on lead results and how to identify the behavioral signs of lead poisoning. But is that enough? Lead exposure doesn’t automatically trigger evaluations; evaluations are usually triggered by teacher or parent concern. The hesitation, again, seems to come down to cost. If classroom interventions do not work and a disability is identified, the student can then receive special education services, which can cost up to $8,500 per student. Last year, 575 students qualified to receive special education services in the district.
Still, as Rachel Dissell, writing for the Plain Dealer, points out, “If upfront costs loom large, research shows they are even more enormous down the road as students struggle to learn, drop out, or are expelled and end up in the criminal justice system or in low-wage jobs.” Or, as Theodore Lidsky, a retired neuropsychologist who served as an expert in the Flint, Michigan lawsuit, sums it up, “Pay now, or pay a lot more later.” But who really pays? It seems that this cost will be left to successive classes of infants on a lifelong installment plan.—Diandria Barber