Mining data and digging for documents can be powerful tools for finding families who may not be getting the best special education services. David DesRoches of WNPR in Connecticut, Brian Rosenthal of The New York Times and Heather Vogell of ProPublica shared this tip and more during their IRE Conference panel, “Investigating special education.”

“Remember that the story is still about real people,” said Rosenthal, who previously worked at the Houston Chronicle and investigated Texas students who were denied special education. His reporting caused ripple effects in state law and won him a top award or finalist position in nearly every major journalism competition.

Rosenthal stressed that, after seeing trends in data, finding real families can seem daunting. However, an active community of educators, activists and parents who care about special education policy can help reporters understand the quality of care and instruction students are getting in schools.

Once reporters review any relevant data and documents that may show a troubling trend, pounding the pavement is usually the next step. Look for families and children affected by any malpractice.

Vogell cited some key places to find voices:

  • National Disability Rights Network
  • COPAA: Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
  • Local special education attorneys and advocates. Find them using web searches or word of mouth.
  • Court and social media searches (request access to the Facebook group “Stop Restraint and Seclusion”)
  • Visit a special education school and talk to parents in the parking lot after dismissal.

Vogell’s presentation focused on two major areas of interest when it comes to accountability journalism and special education in schools: restraint and seclusion, and abuse and neglect, particularly in private facilities charged with taking care of students with developmental disabilities.

Again, she emphasized data as a way to frame concern. For example, she cited federal data that showed that while students with disabilities make up 12 percent of all U.S. students, approximately 67 percent of students subjected to restraints or seclusion had special needs. Those numbers help add context to whatever may be going on in a reporter’s own backyard, she said.

“There are very few centralized documents or data when it comes to private placements,” Vogell said. “A federal bill to create a more centralized registry of these places has gone nowhere.”

She said some key documents may help unmask systemic abuse of children in such placements:

  • Autopsies, child death investigations and law enforcement reports
  • Licensing documents
  • From the regulators: Inspection reports, violations and sanctions, injury or “incident” reports
  • Lawsuits
  • Education (IEPs and FBAs), medical or behavioral records from families. IEPs = Individualized Education Program. FBAs = Functional Behavioral Assessment (identifies problem behavior, triggers and prevention and coping strategies)
  • Social media: Check out the comments on stories about similar facilities
  • Emails to parents or between regulators
  • Child protection agency reports
  • Lobbying records
  • Financial records: How much are facilities getting each year?

DesRoches has extensively covered special education and explained that some districts have made sustainable improvements by using a process known as “response to intervention,” or RTI.

“Few districts actually understand it. Districts often use it to delay services, and so kids languish, fall farther behind,” DesRoches explained.

While the subject area may feel overwhelming, DesRoches offered a helpful breakdown on where to start when reporting on special education:

  1. Understand the law and the reform movement
  2. Start following the money
  3. Mediations and due process hearings
  4. Teacher and administrator evaluations (if public)
  5. Get in the classroom, attend an IEP team meeting and network with parent groups
  6. Comb through state compliance reports

“Be compassionate to the subjects; be angry at the injustice,” he concluded.

Francisco Vara-Orta is a data specialist/staff writer at Education Week, based in the Washington D.C. metro area.