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Special-needs conference in Hernando



SPRING HILL — Few things terrify more than finding out you’re the parent of a special-needs student.

On the day that diagnosis is made, most parents know little about their child’s condition or disability, and even less about their rights to get help at school. Life becomes a jumble of terms to learn, forms to file, meetings to attend.

Next week, on Jan. 16 and 17, parents of special-needs students and the Hernando County Schools are co-sponsoring a two-day conference on special education law and advocacy.

Led by national experts Pete and Pam Wright, the conference features 12 hours of presentations on the intricacies of federal special education law, parents’ rights, strategies for negotiating with school districts, and plenty of time for questions.

Pete Wright, an attorney specializing in special education law, has represented dozens of families in disputes, and won a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993. His wife, Pam, is a psychotherapist who works with children and families.

At $125 for a single parent or teacher, and $175 for couples, the conference isn’t cheap.

But the price includes two law books and materials, as well as continental breakfast and lunch on both days. And there are 20 partial scholarships available for individuals or couples with financial need, priced at $75 and $125 respectively, said Nikki Pierce, founder of the parent support group Special Students of Hernando.

Participants can register at the door at the GlenLakes Golf & Country Club in Weeki Wachee, but advance registration will guarantee a seat. Residents of other counties are welcome.

For one parent of a special-needs child, the myriad of federal and state laws presented a nearly insurmountable challenge after she learned her son had a rare immune system disorder.

“It was horrible,” said Joanne O’Connell of Spring Hill. “You feel like you’re alone.”

For months she argued with school officials. She spent long hours on the Internet learning about her son’s illness, and figuring out her legal rights.

Then she attended a conference on special education law, and discovered a network of other parents who had been through the same struggles she was facing.

As she learned the legal nuances — “You have to leave a paper trail, that’s the key” — her relationship with the district improved.

“Now they treat me like gold, they’re wonderful,” O’Connell said.

That’s what the parents’ support group hopes to provide at next week’s conference, said Pierce.

“If we can help educate parents so they can advocate for themselves and their child, then we have done what we set out to do,” she said.

For more information on the conference or to register, call Special Students of Hernando at (352) 584-5512 or visit

-- Tom Marshall, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:10am]


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