FEDERAL WAY, Wash. — Samuel Clayton got off the school bus and showed the Middle School dance flier to his dad.
"Dance," he said with a big grin, pointing to the word on the flier.
There are lots of words Sam carefully pronounces aloud, but "dance" is one of the few words the 13-year-old can both read and comprehend.
An 8th-grade Taf @ Saghalie student with Down syndrome, Sam thrives on music. He dances at home to nursery rhymes from "The Wiggles." When he plays the ukulele at church, he can't help but move his hips. So when his parents gave him the green light to attend, he could hardly wait to go to his first after-school dance.
When the day of the dance arrived in February, Sam marched into the school gym with his wallet — excited to pay for the $3 ticket himself. Then, he hit the dance floor.
His parents, Sandy and Rob Clayton, stood in the back of the gym and slowly became more and more upset. Their special needs son was surrounded by kids for 45 minutes, but really, he was alone.
"Not one child came and interacted with him. No one came and said, 'Hi Sam.' No one danced with him. No one took a selfie with him," Sandy Clayton said. "He experiences every emotion every other kid feels. He knew he was alone."
It was a wake-up call and a letdown for these doting parents, who concluded: the culture at Sam's middle school is to blame.
"This is an administrative-level problem, and it trickles down to the teachers in the general education population," Rob Clayton, 53, said. "They've set the tone...special needs is not prioritized."
None of the "typical" learners know their son because he spends his entire day in a self-contained classroom with other kids who have disabilities, as set forth in his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) — the legally-binding document that’s intended to help kids with disabilities reach their academic goals.
WATCH: Cell Phone Video Captures Sam Dancing Alone
"He happens to have an extra chromosome,” Sandy Clayton, 52, said. "That’s part of him but it doesn’t define him. But that’s what the other kids see. They see these kids isolated in a class like a Leper colony or something. These are the untouchables.”
The issue is that other kids don’t get to know Sam as a human being— and he doesn't get a chance to learn from them. Sam doesn’t even sit with the typical learners at lunch, his parents said, even though it's his legal right to be around his non-disabled peers as much as possible.
“You get the sense that your kids are just taking up real estate in the school,” Sandy Clayton said. "It's just shoving them aside. It's like they don't exist."
Like Sam, thousands of other special education students in Washington state are shut out of regular classrooms. A KING 5 investigation found that Washington schools exclude students with disabilities from general education settings more often than schools in nearly every other state in the country.
That’s not supposed to happen under state and federal law. Public schools in the United States are required to provide specialized educational services to all children with a disability recognized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
That law guarantees that the more than 150,000 special education students in Washington have a right to go to school in the “least restrictive environment.” It means they should get the opportunity — to the maximum extent appropriate — to learn in a general education setting around children who are not disabled, even if they can’t keep up academically or if schools have to modify the way the children learn with extra support.
"I see all too often that kids are removed from the regular classroom unnecessarily when they are capable of learning with the right support,” said Kathy George, a Seattle-based attorney and a special education expert.
School officials can only remove students from the general education environment if their disabilities are so severe that they aren’t able to achieve goals set in their IEPs, even when students are assigned a personal-tending aide and other individualized services. It’s why IEP teams assign a percentage for the amount of time each special education student should spend with his or her non-disabled peers.
It's common and appropriate, George added, for educators to pull students with cognitive impairments out of the regular classroom for individual instruction in math or reading.
"But what about (physical education)? And what about music? Or art? You know, these are the types of classes that really shouldn’t be excluding kids based on cognitive disabilities,” she said.
Just over half of Washington's 6 to 21-year-olds with disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their day in general education classes. Only seven states have a lower percentage of special education students in regular classes, according to an analysis of the U.S. Department of Education's most recent IDEA report to Congress published in 2017.
Five percent of Washington's students with intellectual disabilities spend the majority of their day in regular classrooms. Only two states in the country — Nevada and Illinois — have worse inclusion rates than Washington in that category, according to the same report.
“We’re clearly a state that has a lot of work to do,” said Chris Reykdal, superintendent of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.