TAMPA — Seven times during the meeting last year, Hillsborough School Board members used the word blackmail.
The board was meeting behind closed doors to discuss a lawsuit brought by Robert Bogan, a Tampa investment banker whose daughter needs special education due to a traumatic brain injury.
Bogan enrolled his daughter in a residential school in Polk County, saying it offered what she needed according to New York education officials. He wanted Hillsborough to reimburse him.
According to a transcript of the meeting, board members and their lawyer debated whether it would cost more to litigate or settle, knowing Bogan could sue again for future years. They speculated Bogan wanted his daughter, now 18, out of the house. They called him a bully.
Bogan said the transcript, which he obtained between lawsuits, confirmed what he long suspected: "They look upon me as a terrorist, an extortionist, somebody they feel is out to exploit the system by trying to get an appropriate education for my daughter."
As the school district works its way through difficult issues after the deaths this year of two special-needs students, areas such as staff training and safety protocols are getting new attention. But so is the relationship between educators and special-needs parents, an emotional one that sometimes turns toxic, leading to accusations and lawsuits.
"Some parents get into a fight mode," said Mark Kamleiter, a St. Petersburg lawyer who represents students in special education. "It was caused by a legitimate problem. But they start fighting, and they can't turn that switch off."
Bogan has been in that mode as long as he can remember.
Fourteen years ago, his daughter Alexandria was hit by a pickup truck. Doctors didn't expect her to emerge from a coma, much less walk or talk or go to school, he said.
In New York, the state paid for a special education private school, he said. Having built a home years earlier in Tampa, Bogan said he returned full-time and tried to get payment from Hillsborough for the Polk school.
He and the district disagreed on issues concerning Alexandria's testing, and whether Bogan followed the correct procedures. Investigators checked to see if he really lived in Tampa.
The district said Alonso High School, which Alexandria attended briefly, could meet her needs. Bogan disagreed. He got a settlement that he said was a fraction of the cost. And he's trying to get more money for Alexandria's education.
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Federal law entitles special needs children to an appropriate education. The district gets federal funding to serve them, although officials say it does not cover the full cost.
In Hillsborough, 29,000 students are served by exceptional student education.
"Many of them have severe medical conditions that require high levels of care," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
"In some of the most challenging cases, the district goes to great lengths to work with parents to meet the students' educational needs in the least restrictive environment while ensuring that students' special needs are met."
Assistant superintendent Wynne Tye has interacted with hundreds of parents. "The hardest thing is that there isn't a norm," she said. "You can't compare my child with your child or somebody else's child."
There are emotional issues, said Ana Sanders, president of the district's ESE advisory council. A parent might have recently learned his or her child has a learning disability.
"You go through the grieving process," she said. "They may be sad, they may be hurt, and they are going to go through that anger phase."
As a parent, she learned to tread carefully. "If I want my kid to be able to get help and get people to help him, I want to make sure that first of all they don't get mad at me and I don't go in there demanding anything," she said. "That tone changes the way a meeting can go."
But even the most diplomatic parent risks being branded a troublemaker, said advocate Claudia Roberts. "If you start asking questions, you have to get comfortable being labeled as one of those kinds of parents."
Veleria Fabiszak wears that badge without apology.
She has complained publicly and repeatedly about the education received by her daughter Chelsea, who has Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder.
She appeared regularly at School Board meetings, sometimes bringing Chelsea in her wheelchair. She described how Chelsea returned from school one day with a broken leg. Unable to speak, she could only moan in pain.
District officials said previously that they met with the family far more than they usually do to discuss services; and that investigations found no wrongdoing on the district's part in Chelsea's injury,
The family recently moved to California. But Fabiszak continues to speak out about ESE issues in Hillsborough. And she is pursuing a due process case in Hillsborough to pay for Chelsea's education.
To officials who question her motives and tactics, she says, "Prove me wrong, then. And if you can prove me wrong, then I'll shut up because nobody knows my child better than a parent."
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The line between asserting and over-aggression can be blurry.
Kamleiter recalls a Pinellas client who turned down the school district's offer for services even though it contained everything he requested.
"She said, 'I want the judge to hear how they treated me,' " he said. "And I said, 'He doesn't care. What does this child need to receive an appropriate education? That's all he cares about.' "
He's also seen school officials discredit parents.
"Nobody gets through litigation unharmed, and particularly the parents," he said.
Jokingly, he tells clients, "There are three rules and you've got to know them." As a school district, "first you blame the child. Then you blame the parent. And you never blame the school."
Denise and Craig Collette said they try to work through channels. But they are unhappy about the treatment of their son, Kyle, who has Type 1 diabetes and autism.
Frustrated that Kyle was spending much of his time on the Freedom High School track instead of being taught, they helped get a video on television that appeared to show his teacher sleeping in class. A classroom aide shot the video. It ran on the news in October.
The district says Freedom administrators looked into the aide's allegations and could not substantiate them. School Board chairwoman April Griffin has met with the Collettes and is calling for another investigation.
Over the years the Collettes say Kyle has had some excellent teachers and some whom they describe as abusive. Denise once found him locked in a closet, she said. At another school he was so distressed, he tore his clothes to shreds.
Kyle is now doing well now at Wharton High School, the Collettes said. But they say the system is riddled with flaws.
"These children cannot speak for themselves," Denise said. "They are the most vulnerable population we have."
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Griffin said she tries not to judge parents who advocate strongly for their children. "You know what? They are parents," she said. "I do not think anyone who is an advocate is out of line."
Elia said educators usually work successfully with parents to meet students' needs.
"It is inspiring to see how much can be accomplished for students when parents and educators work together, and one could easily find numerous cases where that has been the result," she said.
"However, in some cases parents and educators struggle to find the balance or disagree on the best way to meet the students' needs. When that occurs, the best way to ensure an appropriate outcome is to continue to work together."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 810-5068 or firstname.lastname@example.org.