SEATTLE -- Austin Dillinger sat disappointed after the shelter worker took the dog, Leo, back to his cage.
As the 14-year-old frowned, he stuck his finger through another cage, greeting a stray black lab he wasn't allowed to walk.
"Dogs have the same issue as me," said the Yakima County teen.
Spending time at the dog shelter is one of Austin's favorite hobbies because he says he can relate to how the pets feel in their cages: punished and unwanted for reasons they cannot control.
School is where the high school freshman, who has autism, ADHD, anxiety disorder and disruptive behavior disorder, said he feels the most lonely -- like he doesn't belong. Throughout middle school, Yakima School District officials kicked Austin out of school for more than 100 days, labeling the teen as a troublemaker instead of as a student who needs and has a legal right to an individualized education and support under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Dozens of behavior reports written by his middle school teachers described an obstinate student who was hellbent on causing chaos in the classroom with his emotional, explosive outbursts. Austin showed "willful non-compliance," "a refusal to follow directions" and a "refusal to participate," his teacher wrote.
"I felt like I was one of the worst kids that ever was because they were just constantly sending me home," Austin said.
But the issue, special education experts and medical professionals say, is 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.
"It was just so difficult to get the school district to understand that he wasn't just a naughty kid," said Christina Madison, Austin's mom. "It didn't matter what kind of medical rebuttal I had to defend him. They weren't buying it."
A KING 5 investigation found that experiences like Austin's are widespread across Washington state, where students with special needs are routinely disciplined more than twice as often as their non-disabled peers. In 2017, Washington schools suspended or expelled students with disabilities nearly two-and-a-half times the rate of students without disabilities, according to a KING 5 analysis of data tracked by the state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
"Schools are supposed to figure out what resources to give the kids instead of punishing them for their disability," said Paul Alig, an attorney at Team Child, a Washington-based nonprofit law office that advocates for youth in order to prevent disciplinary removals from school. "Students with disabilities need more education services -- not less."
The school districts that wrongfully discipline those students not only violate the federal IDEA, but also the state's anti-discrimination law. It's OSPI's duty to make sure districts aren't discriminating against students with disabilities but the school districts face little to no consequences when they do. The state education agency has the authority to penalize school districts through actions, like withholding funds, if a district violates the discrimination laws. But a public records request to OSPI revealed the agency has never exercised that power.
Nationally, Washington has one of the worst track records for excessive suspensions and expulsions of special education students. For decades, the state's schools have opted to get rid of the problem with control and punishment, as opposed to using evidence-based tactics to prevent escalated outbursts in the first place.
"The old default of kicking them out and turning that into long-term suspension has not served anybody well," said Superintendent Chris Reykdal, the state's top education official.
Only nine states -- including North Carolina, Missouri and West Virginia -- kick more students with disabilities out of school, per student, than Washington, according to an analysis of the U.S. Department of Education's most recent IDEA report to Congress published in 2017. The federal data, which tracked suspensions and expulsions during the 2013-2014 school year that lasted longer than 10 days, found that Washington suspended or expelled 135 students per every 10,000 kids. For context, Oregon suspended or expelled 41 special education students per 10,000. Idaho suspended or expelled four special education students per 10,000.
GRAPHIC: Washington School Discipline Rates
Special education experts and attorneys who represent families impacted by excessive school discipline say the data tracked by OSPI and the federal government doesn't provide a complete picture of the problem. They say the numbers don't account for the countless instances of unofficial disciplinary action, such as when school administrators ask parents to pick their children up early or keep them home from school.
It's a reality Madison, Austin's mom, said she knows too well. The 34-year-old single mom, who worked at a doctor's office at the time, said school officials contacted her repeatedly in the middle of the work day to complain about her son's behavior.
"I started getting phone calls. I got e-mails, 'Austin is not behaving himself.' 'Austin did this,' and it was just exhausting," Madison said. "It got to the point where the more I wanted to understand what happened, the more irritated they would get with me, and (they) just wanted me to come pick him up and deal with it."