When public schools can’t serve Washington’s most vulnerable students with disabilities, districts turn to a network of private special education schools. It’s an obscure but vital corner of the state’s special education system, funded by millions of taxpayer dollars.

The state knows little about the more than 60 campuses that serve the students. It doesn’t track how many kids are locked in isolation rooms or restrained by staffers. Until two years ago, the state couldn’t even count how many public school students attended these schools.

In an investigation published in partnership with ProPublica, The Times uncovered years of alarming reports about abuse and lax academics at one network of private schools. Owned by Universal Health Services, a Fortune 500 health care corporation, the Northwest School of Innovative Learning operated with virtually no curriculum and staff so poorly trained that they often resorted to restraining and isolating students. 

Former employees said they felt pressured to cut costs and enroll more students than the staff could handle. Records and interviews showed that the school received public money without providing the services or education that its students needed — or that taxpayers paid for.

Fairfax Hospital, the UHS subsidiary that owns Northwest SOIL, defended the program in a statement, saying, “We strongly deny any allegation that we understaff and/or pressure staff to increase admissions in order to maximize profits.” UHS said it had no comment beyond Fairfax’s statement.

Despite years of complaints, the state kept rubber-stamping the schools’ annual renewals.

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At Washington special education schools, years of abuse complaints and lack of academics

By Mike Reicher and Lulu Ramadan | Read story »

A chain of private schools promised to help students with disabilities. But as allegations mounted, the state let them stay open and collect millions in tax dollars.


How a billion-dollar corporation exploits Washington’s special education system

By Lulu Ramadan, Mike Reicher and Taylor Blatchford | Read story »

Universal Health Services collected more than $38 million in tax dollars for special education services that families and former teachers say it largely didn’t provide.


Resources for parents navigating nonpublic agencies in Washington

By Taylor Blatchford | Read story »

This aspect of the special education system can be complicated for parents and guardians to navigate, but there are resources to make it easier. We talked with advocates, lawyers and experts to help parents understand their rights and options.


WA proposes reforms for special education schools, citing Seattle Times, ProPublica stories

By Mike Reicher and Lulu Ramadan | Read story »

Washington state education officials are proposing to expand oversight of private schools for students with disabilities, citing a Seattle Times and ProPublica investigation that revealed that the state failed to intervene despite years of complaints about these schools.

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WA launches probe of private special ed schools as lawmakers consider reforms

By Mike Reicher and Lulu Ramadan | Read story »

Washington education officials have launched an investigation into the state’s largest network of privately run schools for students with disabilities, following a series of stories by The Seattle Times and ProPublica that documented poor conditions at the schools, the state disclosed Thursday.


CREDITS

Reporters: Mike Reicher, Lulu Ramadan, Taylor Blatchford

Editors: Michael Grabell (ProPublica), Jonathan Martin

Research: Alex Mierjeski (ProPublica)

Data reporting: Mike Reicher, Manuel Villa

Illustrations and graphics: Gabriel Campanario, Jennifer Luxton, Jillian Kumagai (ProPublica)

Videography: Lauren Frohne, Ramon Dompor

Photography: Erika Schultz, Ken Lambert

Photo editor: Angela Gottschalk

Design and development: Frank Mina

Project coordinator: Laura Gordon

Audience engagement: Taylor Blatchford, Kengo Tsutsumi (ProPublica)