A truly astounding quotation: Long ago and far away—actually, it was January 2017, the month in which Donald J. Trump ascended to power—a lengthy report in The New Yorker painted a deeply unfortunate portrait.
The report was written by Sarah Stillman. She was reporting on the efforts of Maya Shankar, "an Obama staffer who was looking at ways that behavioral science might be put to work in Flint" in the wake of that city's high-profile water problem.
We're quoting from Kevin Drum's post concerning this unfortunate matter. And alas—below, you see the unfortunate state of affairs which emerged when Shankar discussed the children of Flint with Michigan State's Kent Key.
The children of Flint had begun to believe that they had been damaged beyond repair by their city's water crisis:
STILLMAN (1/15/17): Key shared a personal story about the son of a family friend who had begun acting out in school. The boy’s mother had come to Key for help. When Key asked the boy what was going on, he replied, “Well, they said I’m not going to be smart anyway.”The children of Flint were beginning to believe that they would never be smart.
“These kids are internalizing the messages about how the lead is affecting them,” Key said.
Flint's children had heard, again and again, that they'd been "poisoned" by what had occurred. According to Key, they were now "internalizing the messages" about the damage which had been done.
As Stillman continued, so did her portrait of this unfortunate state of affairs:
STILLMAN: Shankar began contemplating aloud the possibilities. She said to Tucker-Ray, “Did you see how my eyes widened when he said that thing about the kids giving up because they think they’re going to be dumb?”These were anecdotal reports, accompanied by subjective assessments, but they point to an obvious problem. When kids are told that they've been badly damaged, perhaps in ways which can't be repaired, those kids will often believe what they're told.
….As their last day in Flint drew to a close, Shankar and Tucker-Ray hurried to a final meeting. They had arranged to talk with a disabled Gulf War veteran and community activist named Art Woodson, who didn’t think much of the federal government. At a local municipal building, where an enlarged photograph of corroded lead pipes adorned one wall, Woodson told Shankar about his worry that local kids would give up when lead’s symptoms surfaced, or even before. “What I see,” he said, “is hopelessness.”
Hopelessness and despair may set in. As of late 2016, Shankar seemed to believe that this was occurring in Flint.
Question! To what extent have the children of Flint been harmed by the water crisis? We'll consider that question tomorrow. To see one of Drum's many assessments, you can read his post about that New Yorker report, atop which his headline said this:
In Flint, We Are Laying Tragedy on Top of Tragedy on Top of TragedyAccording to Drum, the harm caused by the water crisis was nowhere near as large as was being described and imagined. Kids were being led to a state of "hopelessness" by loud, unintelligent shouting by various adults.
How badly have Flint's kids been harmed? Have the bulk of children in Flint likely been harmed in any significant or measurable way at all?
We'll examine those questions tomorrow. But we recalled that New Yorker report when we read last Friday's New York Times—when we read an astounding above-the-fold, front-page report built around this deeply unfortunate statement by a veteran teacher:
GREEN (11/7/19): “We have a school district where all that’s left are damaged kids who are being exposed to other damaged kids, and it’s causing more damage,” said Stephanie Pascal, who has taught in Flint for 23 years."All that’s left are damaged kids who are being exposed to other damaged kids?" Incredibly, the New York Times built a major front-page report around that astonishing statement.
Might we speak frankly just once? Despite the relentless branding to which we're all exposed, the sheer stupidity never ends at the New York Times—and the paper's decision to run with that statement is one of the all-time examples.
Of one thing you can be sure—that remarkable statement will be repeated on every playground in Flint. Every child is going to hear that he or she is "a damaged kid"—a damaged kid who's being exposed to other such kids, thereby creating more damage.
Flint's children will believe what they hear, as will many of their parents. Only a newspaper like the Times is too brain-dead, too clueless to understand this and exercise caution about the wild statements it prints.
Every child in the city of Flint is going to hear that he, and every kid he knows, is damaged and causing more damage. Many kids will believe that crazy remark—and yes, that statement is crazy.
How crazy is that high-profile statement? How crazy was the New York Times to publish such a wild statement, then use it as the basis for a front-page headline?
How crazy was the Times? Let's consider the type of "evidence" which surrounded that crazy statement in the Times report:
GREEN (11/7/19): The contamination of this long-struggling city’s water exposed nearly 30,000 schoolchildren to a neurotoxin known to have detrimental effects on children’s developing brains and nervous systems. Requests for special education or behavioral interventions began rising four years ago, when the water contamination became public, bolstering a class-action lawsuit that demanded more resources for Flint’s children."All that's left are damaged kids?"
That lawsuit forced the state to establish the $3 million Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence, which began screening students. The screenings then confirmed a range of disabilities, which have prompted still more requests for intervention.
The percentage of the city’s students who qualify for special education services has nearly doubled, to 28 percent, from 15 percent the year the lead crisis began, and the city’s screening center has received more than 1,300 referrals since December 2018. The results: About 70 percent of the students evaluated have required school accommodations for issues like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also known as A.D.H.D.; dyslexia; or mild intellectual impairment, said Katherine Burrell, the associate director of the center.
“We have a school district where all that’s left are damaged kids who are being exposed to other damaged kids, and it’s causing more damage,” said Stephanie Pascal, who has taught in Flint for 23 years.
To the extent that the Times' Erica Green thought she should provide support for such a sweeping claim, she cited the fact that 28 percent of the city's kids have now been assigned to special ed, up from 15 percent before the crisis began.
Is 28 percent a lot or a little? Green made no attempt to answer this obvious question. But 28 percent isn't everyone—it's actually well less than half—and as she continued, Green seemed to say that this and other diagnostic increases may be more illusory than real:
GREEN (continuing directly): Medical experts say there is no way to prove that the lead has caused new disabilities. Pediatricians here caution against overdiagnosing children as irreparably brain damaged, if only to avoid stigmatizing an entire city. The State Department of Education, in battling the class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the New Jersey-based Education Law Center, enlisted an expert who testified that the real public health crisis was not the lead-contaminated water but the paranoia of parents, students and teachers exposed to it.Say what? "Medical experts say there is no way to prove that the lead has caused new disabilities?"
But Dr. Burrell said that proving the cause of the students’ problems was not the point. Many of the problems uncovered by the lead testing could certainly have existed before.
It's possible that the increase in testing and diagnosis has been caused, in part or in whole, by the post-crisis increase in screenings? By something resembling "paranoia?" It's possible that this heightened state of concern has led to something like "overdiagnosing?" It's possible that this is the cause, in part or in whole, for the jump in special ed diagnoses—a jump of some thirteen points?
How much have the children of Flint been harmed by the water problem? We'll discuss that problem tomorrow—and you may be surprised by Drum's estimates, offered in many reports.
For Drum's original Mother Jones cover report about the problems caused by exposure to lead, you can just click here. That lengthy report predated the problem in Flint. For today, we'll only say this:
The bad judgment never ends at the New York Times. That said, we've never seen a worse decision than the decision to build a lengthy front-page report around a sweeping, deeply unfortunate claim by someone who isn't an expert on the topic at hand.
That said, we'll guess that the irresponsible statement is being repeated on every Flint playground. On the brighter side, the Times has once again taken the chance to show how deeply it cares.
Tomorrow: Remarkable statistics, past and present