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Back of the Class: An investigation into WA's special ed failures

KING 5's Susannah Frame and Taylor Mirfendereski expose the reasons why Washington lags behind much of the country in serving one of its most vulnerable populations: students with disabilities.

Back Of The Class is a multi-part, on-going investigation into the state of special education in Washington.

The state lags behind most of the country in serving students with disabilities. KING 5's Susannah Frame and Taylor Mirfendereski expose that some districts are violating federal law, and the special needs students they serve are paying the price.

Part 1: Funding Crisis

Cap On Funding Leaves Students With Disabilities In Limbo

Noah Lopez-Legg should — and has the right to under state and federal law — be in kindergarten right now with a free education tailored to his special needs. Instead, the 6-year-old boy with autism fell victim to an underfunded and outdated state special education system that has ultimately put his educational future in limbo.

Read the full story

Noah Legg-Lopez, a 6-year-old non-verbal autistic boy, watches a video on his iPad during a car ride to his Kirkland therapy center on April 4, 2018. (Photo: Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5)

Part 2: Inclusion Failures

Washington Kids With Special Needs Often Denied Right To Learn In General Classes

At home, Sam Clayton is an avid reader, a swimmer, a ukulele player and a drummer. But his parents worry he's just "the disabled kid" at school. Thousands of Washington kids like him are segregated and denied their legal right to learn around their peers.

Read the full story.

Sam Clayton, a 13-year-old with Down syndrome, poses for a photo on the porch of his Federal Way home on April 5, 2018. (Photo: Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5)

Part 3: An Inclusive Model

Oregon School District Includes All Students With Disabilities In Regular Classes

Washington has one of the worst track records when it comes to excluding kids with special needs from general education classes. But in Oregon, one district is including all students with disabilities in regular classes.

Read the full story

Credit: Provided
Nate Paskins, a 9-year-old with Down syndrome, looks at the camera as a fellow classmate reads to him in class at Strafford Primary School in West Linn, Oregon.

Part 4: Dyslexia Intervention

Students With Dyslexia Struggling In Washington Public Schools

Twins Ryan and Jake Vandell couldn’t write their own names at the start of second grade. Jake could read just five words. Ryan could read two.

And thousands of other Washington students with dyslexia are failing in class because their schools won’t provide the proper help.

Read the full story.

Credit: Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5
Ryan (left) and Jake Vandell sit together in the library at Hamlin Robinson School in Seattle on June 1, 2018. The 11-year-old Sammamish twins have dyslexia.

Part 5: Mabton's Special Ed Failures

Eastern WA school district violates special education laws for a decade

A three-month KING 5 investigation uncovered a pattern of wrongdoing in the Mabton School District. Officials there violated state and federal special education laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — the law that guarantees all students with disabilities receive the specialized services they need to reach their full potential in school.

Read the full story.

Part 6: Mabton's Cover-Up 

Washington School District Covers Up Special Ed Failures

This is a follow-up KING 5 investigation into the Mabton School District's special education violations.

The Eastern Washington district did more than fail to educate students with special needs. Administrators tried to cover up their shortcomings.

Read the full story.

(Photo: Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5)

Part 7: Excessive Discipline

Washington special needs students disciplined more than twice as often as general education peers

Yakima School District officials kicked Austin Dillinger out of school for more than 100 days in middle school. They labeled the teen, who has autism and other disabilities, as a troublemaker.

But medical professionals say that Austin didn't choose to break the school rules. He's one of thousands of Washington students with special needs who are repeatedly punished in school for behaviors directly caused by their disabilities.

Read the full investigation.

Credit: Taylor Mirfendereski | KING
Austin Dillinger, who has autism, ADHD, anxiety disorder and disruptive behavior disorder, admires a dog at the dog shelter in Everett.

Part 8: Isolation and Restraint

Thousands of Washington students isolated and restrained, despite law limiting practice

Years of research show the controversial practice of isolating and restraining students is not only outdated, it doesn't work. In 2009 and 2012, the U.S. Department of Education warned against the behavior modification tactics.

Despite those recommendations and a 2015 state law that sought to limit how often the Washington school officials physically restrain and isolate students, a KING 5 review of statewide data revealed many educators continue to rely on the practices in Washington's public schools.

Read the full story.

Part 9: Retaliation

Washington special ed teacher alleges retaliation for fighting for kids' rights

A former special education teacher in the Auburn School District said school administrators retaliated against her after she spoke up about issues affecting students with disabilities in her classroom.

Read the full story.

Part 10: Financial Devastation

Fight for special ed services leaves Washington families financially devastated

A KING 5 investigation found this pattern:  As families push to get their children with disabilities the resources they need to succeed in school, some school districts dig in their heels. They refuse to deliver on promised services without a legal fight. It forces parents to fork out thousands of dollars to cover attorneys fees and pay out of pocket for things like private therapies and schools. The battles often leave families exhausted, stressed out and in financial ruin.  

Read the full story.

Credit: Taylor Mirfendereski | KING
Erin Willison sifts through bills in her kitchen.

Part 11: Trauma 

Washington special ed students traumatized by physical restraints at school 

A KING 5 investigation found cases in school districts across Washington state where special education students experienced significant psychological and educational setbacks due to being physically restrained and isolated.

Read the full story.

Credit: Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5
Isaac, a 13-year-old student with autism, plays a video game at his Seattle home.

Follow Up Stories & Updates 

Proposed Bill Seeks To Address Special Education Funding Crisis In Washington 

PUBLISHED: February 5, 2019 

House Bill 1910 would eliminate a decades-old cap on the number of special education students Washington state will fund.

Read the full story

State's top budget writers promise 'significant' increases in special ed funding

PUBLISHED: Feb. 27, 2019

Washington’s two most powerful decision-makers who control the state’s multi-billion-dollar budget said Wednesday that boosting funding for special education is a top priority.

Read the full story

Washington Legislature boosts special education funding, but shortfall remains

PUBLISHED: April 29, 2019

The new two-year $52.4 billion state budget, which passed Sunday, includes a $155 million increase to special education funding over the next two years.

Read the full story.

Segregated student's life changes after getting access to regular classrooms 

PUBLISHED: June 27, 2019

This school year, Sam Clayton's freshman year of high school, was the first time in three years that Federal Way school administrators allowed him inside general education classrooms, learning alongside non-disabled peers for nearly 40 percent of the day. 

In middle school, Sam spent every day in a segregated classroom with other students with disabilities, including lunch.  

Read the full story


Contact The Reporters

Susannah Frame is the Chief Investigative Reporter at KING 5. Her stories have exposed many wrongs, leading to changes in public policy, congressional investigations, federal indictments and new state laws. Follow her on Twitter @SFrameK5 and like her on Facebook to keep up with her reporting. For story tips or questions, e-mail her at sframe@king5.com.

Taylor Mirfendereski is a multimedia journalist, who focuses on in-depth reports and investigations for KING 5's digital platforms. Follow her on Twitter @TaylorMirf and like her on Facebook to keep up with her reporting. For story tips or questions, e-mail her at tmirfendereski@king5.com.

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