MABTON, Wash. — All it takes is three short grunts or a hand motion for Lorena Ramirez to know exactly what her 17-year-old son, Anthony Moran, wants.
If he's hungry, Anthony grunts to get his mom's attention, and then he moves his tongue around like he's tasting something.
If he wants to watch a video of trains on YouTube, he looks at Ramirez's hand until she pulls out her phone.
And if he wants to feed the dogs or the chickens in their Yakima County backyard, he stands by the window and grunts three times until Ramirez says "yes."
Despite Anthony's severe autism, the mother and her soon-to-be high school senior have no trouble understanding each other. But the Mabton School District Anthony attends denied him the specialized educational services he needs to learn to communicate with anyone else.
"Sometimes when he wants something (and people don't understand what he's expressing), I can see how he gets frustrated," Ramirez said. "He must be thinking, 'My family knows what I'm saying. Why don't they know?'"
Since Ramirez enrolled him in the Eastern Washington district 12 years ago, Anthony has made nominal academic progress. He still needs help with all aspects of daily living. His education records compare his life skills to that of a 4-year-old. His communication skills, according to the same records, match that of a 3-year-old.
He can't count. He can't write. He can't say his own name.
"I sent my baby to these people, and they didn't help him. They didn't help him progress," Ramirez said. "They didn't help him do anything, and they lied to me about it."
A three-month KING 5 investigation into Anthony's case 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. Special education experts say the district's failures will likely cost Anthony a meaningful future due to his lack of progress.
"He's not learning the things he needs to learn in order to be able to function within the community as an adult," said Wendy Marlowe, a Seattle-based neuropsychologist who evaluates students with disabilities. "So every year that he fails to receive a meaningful benefit from services, he falls further behind and becomes less competent in comparison with his peers than he was the year before. You wind up having a student at the age of 18 or 21 who doesn't have the basic prerequisites to function in society."
The findings, based on an analysis of more than 700 hundred pages of Mabton education records and legal documents, revealed:
- For at least a decade, the district did not allow Anthony and an unknown number of other students with disabilities to attend a full six-hour school day.
- In classes where other kids would get academic instruction, special education staff occupied Anthony with non-academic tasks — like sleeping.
- Mabton officials denied him access to assistive technology to facilitate his communication skills, despite recommendations in legally binding education plans.
- Anthony was denied access to licensed specialists who could provide services that experts said he needed, including speech therapy, occupational therapy and behavioral support.
- School officials punished Anthony dozens of times in at least one school year for behavioral issues directly related to his disability.
- District officials misled Anthony's parents about a variety of issues, including his academic progress and the services he received.
"It's the most egregious (school district) that I've come across because of the number of issues and the length of time that the issues have gone on," said Kerri Feeney, a Richland-based attorney who represented Anthony's mother when she filed both state and federal complaints against the school district in 2017. "They had to have known these were violations."
Mabton school administrators, who have since retired or left the district for other jobs, admitted to most of the violations in legal documents related to Ramirez's state and federal complaints.
But the six current and former school officials repeatedly contacted for this story either declined interviews, dodged questions or did not respond to requests for comment.