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Parents' questions and complaints are met with assurances from school district staff.

For educators, it's the ultimate tough crowd: about 50 parents of special-needs students, armed with questions and complaints.

Such parents, often bruised over years of struggle to gain services in cash-strapped public schools, know their rights and aren't shy about speaking up.

That was the scene facing director Cathy Dofka and her Exceptional Student Education staff last week at a forum in the Hernando County School Board meeting room.

They were prepared for a hard night, after special-needs parents voiced frustration over district services at a March public meeting with superintendent Wayne Alexander.

Some of those parents appeared ready to continue the confrontation, tossing off jargon-laced challenges. But Dofka and her assistants came prepared with facts and plenty of patience.

"If you go to high school intensive reading (class), there is no differentiated instruction," said parent Karen Capehart, a frequent participant in the Wednesday evening forum.

"You and I are going to be meeting, and we can talk about some of these issues," Dofka responded. "Because there are some things we'd like to do differently, and one of them is the very thing you're talking about."

"Okay," Capehart said.

About 16 percent of Hernando students have received extra state and federal support for disabilities in recent years, slightly above the state average. Many of those children will move to different schools this summer because of countywide boundary changes, and the district has said it hopes to begin phasing out its practice of "clustering" special-needs students in a few schools.

Several parents voiced concern over those changes.

"When are we getting information on where he's going to be placed?" Misty Sanchez asked, referring to her son. "He's been at Moton Elementary for eight years. So much change at one time is not good for him."

"They are still in the process of hiring teachers," Dofka said. "They will get the services that are on their (individual education plan). That's the law. I'm sure the programs will look very similar to where they are now."

Marisa Santela was worried, too. Her 7-year-old autistic son is happy at Deltona Elementary School, where the staff has gone out of its way to communicate with her family. That wasn't always the case at a previous school that experienced high turnover, she said.

Autistic children have particular trouble with transitions and change, she said, and some teachers and parents mistake their anxiety for misbehavior.

"We are battling with doctors and insurance companies and the school system," Santela added. "You get tired; it's just draining. We are not just parents who can't control their kids in public."

For her and several other parents, the meeting was helpful. Few problems were resolved, but voices were heard.

"We do our darnedest to help as much as we can," Dofka said later. "Most of our parents we have a great relationship with. There are just a few we have issues with, and they have issues with us."

Tom Marshall can be reached at or (352) 848-1431.