Washington State is violating federal law, the state’s top education official told KING-TV. That frank and astonishing pronouncement was part of the investigative team’s “Back of the Class” series examining systematic failures in Washington’s special education programs.
I recently got a chance to talk to KING-TV Chief Investigative Reporter Susannah Frame and Multimedia Journalist Taylor Mirfendereski about the project, which will receive a national Murrow Award for Continuing Coverage October 14 in New York.
It’s an impressive body of work highlighting the inequality and inadequate support special education students face across the state, a topic reporters can and should pursue in their own markets.
Frame says she has been reporting on disability for many years, and built a network of sources and experts while reporting on the institutionalization of adults with disabilities. She got the idea to do an in-depth series on education and disability when she began hearing troubling anecdotes about children with disabilities in Washington schools and decided “I need to put special ed on the map.”
But then she shelved the idea for nearly two years because of two major obstacles: The overwhelming amount of education data and difficulty in finding families to feature.
Both those time-consuming challenges got a little easier when Mirfendereski got involved with the project.
Digging through the Data
Unlike some investigative projects that require aggressive pursuit of records through FOIA requests, Mirfendereski says there is more education data available than the team initially knew what to do with.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevents schools from releasing individual student records – and sometimes from being forthcoming about broader problems – but between state and federal education departments, there is still a huge amount of reporting available.
The team started with the Department of Education’s annual report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which includes state-by-state data.
Maybe 20 pages out of the nearly 350 page report were helpful, Frame said, but putting in the work to carefully read and analyze the report set them in the right direction.
Along with that report, state-level data about issues like differences in discipline for special education students and subject matter experts who could point to additional sources of information like the best ways to monitor the state’s progress, the team started to see through the complexities of the issue.
It all kept coming back to the state’s special education funding scheme – the “why” behind so many of the challenges special education students were encountering. Frame says it was a bit of a slog to make complex funding formulas accessible to audiences, but it was extremely important for the investigative team to understand the root causes of the problems they were uncovering.
There are organizations that specialize in reporting on special education funding, Mirfendereski says, and their expertise helped the team analyze Washington’s situation and understand the implications.
While context was key, “the kids brought things to life,” Frame says, since “that’s where the heart and soul of it all is.”
That was the second major challenge of this project.
Finding Families to Feature
Frame says that, at first, it was difficult to find families to feature for each of the different stories in the project.
She and Mirfendereski worked with a small group of attorneys who specialize in education rights to connect with families who were affected.
Eventually, they’d spoken with enough parents of children with disabilities that word got out to social media and online communities, and the team was inundated even before any stories were published.
One reason the Back of the Class series is a Murrow Award-winning example of Continuing Coverage is that each report in the series moves the story forward, uncovering an entirely new problem with the state’s special education program.
Frame says that journalists often fall into the trap of doing the same story again with multiple people whose compelling circumstances all relate to one angle of an investigation. It takes discipline, she says, to move on to new angles and say no to highlighting every family’s story.
“I’m not going to lie,” Frame said, “It’s time consuming” to sort through every tip.
Mirfendereski says that the families who were highlighted in the series often became the hub of communities of parents facing similar challenges, so even though the team didn’t report on every family which reached out, they were able to help many more than appeared in the series.
In many cases, families the team heard from were desperate for help. Others were afraid of retaliation if they went public with their stories or anxious about putting their children in the spotlight.
Frame says investigative journalists must be clear upfront that you can’t promise anything about the outcomes of sharing stories publicly and understand that everyone’s fearful when it comes to their children.
But, she says, she’s never had anyone come back to her and report a worsening set of circumstances after sharing a story.
Reporting Inclusively on Vulnerable and Marginalized Communities
The third pillar of RTDNA’s Code of Ethics – accountability – says that journalists must take special consideration when reporting on vulnerable and marginalized communities. That was the third challenge for the Back of the Class team.
While Frame had experience working with local disability rights groups, Mirfendereski had not covered disability extensively before. Both wanted to be attentive to the language in the story and to breakdown stereotypes and stigma, so they took advantage of training from the National Center on Disability Journalism and its disability language style guide.
With that framework of mindfulness, Mirfendereski says, they were able to have conversations with parents and their children about how disabilities affected their everyday life. The parents were able to guide their children’s participation in the story, and the investigative team followed their lead, with each child participating as much as possible (a special challenge for photojournalist Ryan Coe!).
In that way, the team wasn’t only reporting on families living with disability, but reporting with the community.
From Investigation to Impact
Mirfendereski says the audience response was overwhelming, as viewers spent more time on digital stories from the series than any others on the KING-TV website and actively engaged in Facebook Live discussions as part of the series.
Initially, the series was going to be about five stories, but the project grew organically with every story. “We were flooded,” Frame said, as more and more parents reached out to share their children’s stories, leading to new angles and more stories.
Some of the now 14 stories have featured children from the series whose personal circumstances have improved since they were highlighted.
There have been more systemic changes too, as a record number of special education-focused bills have been proposed in Washington’s legislature following the reports, with a few now enacted.
But the biggest outcome is an increase in funding and incentives for more inclusiveness of children with disabilities in Washington schools.
Frame says projects of this scale are only possible with the support of the station, and she hopes news managers will consider the power and impact of investigative reporting.
Will Frame and Mirfendereski keep pursing special education stories? Absolutely. As we wrapped up our conversation, they were pulling up at another family’s house getting ready to pursue a new angle.
Murrow Mondays are a look behind-the-scenes of Murrow Award winning journalism. The 2019 Murrow Award Gala is October 14.