TAMPA — With her 9-year-old son Anthony nearby, Theresa Mastella stood outside the Hillsborough County Children's Board headquarters on Thursday, waving a sign that said "Schools should be safe."
Anthony has Down syndrome and, like other parents, Mastella was moved by the news of two deaths this year of special-needs students in Hillsborough County.
"It just brings up all the issues that have been going on for years in the schools," said Mastella, who is active in a Down syndrome support group. "Unfortunately, it took two tragedies to bring it to light."
About 25 other protesters stood with her, including some children. Rhonda Ward, a volunteer advocate whose son has spina bifida, came all the way from Broward County.
Their issues ran the gamut from improved services in the Hillsborough district to state laws that would hold districts more accountable for serving disabled students.
"It's a systemic issue, it's not just here," Ward said. "They make everything as difficult as possible."
The Hillsborough district has a work group studying safety in the Exceptional Student Education program, which serves 29,000 students. Issues include staff training and protocols for moving students from one section of campus to another.
District spokesman Stephen Hegarty said of the protest, "This group is advocating for children and for ensuring the safety of children, and we are interested in all of those things as well. We are hard at work reviewing everything we do."
The district also is investigating the death of Jennifer Caballero, who drowned in a retention pond behind her middle school after wandering away from gym class.
Some of the parents Thursday said Caballero's death affected them on a personal level.
Diane Rodgers, whose 12-year-old son has Down syndrome, spoke highly of his teachers and aides.
But there was one morning when, at 4, her son wound up alone in the bus lane while teachers and aides were occupied. Rodgers said she had lingered at the school and discovered him, by sheer coincidence, before he wandered off.
"Everyone you talk to has a story," she said.
Samuel Felix, 18, said he was sickened by news of the two deaths. He has Asperger's syndrome and plans to take courses next year at St. Petersburg College.
"I believe that all of us were made equal on this earth and should be treated as equals," he said.
The protest coincided with the Children's Board's legislative summit, an event that brings community members together to discuss issues they wish to take to the Legislature.
Pam Iorio, the Children's Board's interim chief executive, said some of the protesters participated in the summit.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.