SPRING HILL — Few things terrify a parent more than finding out that their child has special needs.
On the day such a diagnosis is made, most parents know little about their child's condition or challenges, 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.
To help untangle the knots, parents of special-needs students and the Hernando County Schools are co-sponsoring a conference next week on special education law and advocacy.
Led by national experts Pete and Pam Wright, the conference on Jan. 16 and 17 will feature 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 families or individuals with a financial need which reduce the price to $75 for one person and $125 for a couple, 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 registration in advance will guarantee a seat. Residents of other counties are welcome.
For one parent, 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 the 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.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.