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National

School Superintendent In Flint Worries About Water Crisis' Irreversible Harm

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Flint, Mich. the extent of the harm to children from water contaminated by lead is not yet known. It's a crisis that has been talked about by some presidential candidates. And one of them, Democrat Hillary Clinton, took a break yesterday from campaigning in the all-important state of New Hampshire to visit Flint. We're going to hear now from Flint's superintendent of schools. Bilal Tawwab now faces a possible influx of students who may have suffered irreversible harm. Even small amounts of lead can affect children's behavior and intelligence over time. Good morning.

BILAL TAWWAB: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, you've said that worry about educating children exposed to lead in Flint's water crisis keeps you up at night. What exactly are you facing here?

TAWWAB: That's the million-dollar question. We really don't know. And so we're just focusing now on making sure that we have the necessary resources so that we're able to respond to whatever the needs are.

MONTAGNE: So when you're casting your mind ahead to what the needs might be, let's talk about things you would want to do.

TAWWAB: Immediately, we want to be able to expand our early childhood options for the child zero to 5. And then beyond zero to 5, talking about behavior intervention staff, you know, that specialty staff needed to support the individual needs of these children.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about money. You do need money to put any new programs into effect, to bring in any new personnel. Flint's schools, as I understand it, run a deficit already of about 10 and a half million dollars.

TAWWAB: The deficit is definitely declining. But yes, we do have a roughly a $10.5 million deficit. So that presents a challenge because you're thinking about the systems that need to be put in place so that we are able to, you know, best meet the needs of all of our children while making cuts.

MONTAGNE: And in addition to dealing with the students themselves and issues they may have in coming years, the problem is already very real at schools, I gather. There's a difficulty in preparing meals in cafeterias because cooks cannot use the water. There are no more drinking fountains. Tell us a little bit more about how this is already playing out on the schools' campuses.

TAWWAB: I made the decision in September that my students would not consume the water. We started providing our kids with fruit that you can peel versus fruit that require you to rinse. And in terms of providing water to students daily, the level of donations have been out of sight. I mean, it's been major. So we have been able to meet the needs of our children since September.

MONTAGNE: Because you saw this happening back then.

TAWWAB: Yeah, I immediately responded when the doctors shared that there's - the increase in lead levels in children. That got my attention. I'm responsible for 5,400 kids. I'm thinking, OK, (laughter) I cannot sit and not respond. So I'm making this decision, but I'm saying, wow, I have little money. How would I be able to meet the water needs of our kids? But I had to make the decision to keep them safe.

MONTAGNE: And how is life at the schools? Are kids able to concentrate, or are they thinking about the lead all the time? Paint us a picture.

TAWWAB: We're definitely not new to this because we started things in September. So our kids are pretty calm. I know some of our students are starting to ask more questions because they're seeing it more on the news, and folks are talking. And so now we are focused on being able to provide our students with more lead education.

MONTAGNE: What kind of questions are the kids asking?

TAWWAB: I guess the question is, you know, how am I impacted? Am I impacted? Or what's going to happen? You know, if I - if I consumed this water that there may be some challenges - so, you know, help me understand. And some may want to know, what can I do to help myself? And so we're talking about diet and things of that nature, which is very important. Much education around that is needed at this point.

MONTAGNE: So these kids, though, are highly aware of what's going on?

TAWWAB: (Laughter) If you live in the city of Flint - yeah, I would say so. It's, I mean, it's the talk of the town. It's the talk of the nation.

MONTAGNE: Bilal Tawwab is superintendent of schools in Flint, Mich. Thank you for talking with us.

TAWWAB: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.