Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Protesters want protection for Hillsborough students with special needs

Breanna Whitehead, 21, left, and Caitlin Whiteside, 28, protest the treatment of special-needs students Thursday in front of Hillsborough Children’s Board headquarters.


Breanna Whitehead, 21, left, and Caitlin Whiteside, 28, protest the treatment of special-needs students Thursday in front of Hillsborough Children’s Board headquarters.

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

Protesters want protection for Hillsborough students with special needs 11/29/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 30, 2012 12:01am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. For some, Memorial Day comes around more than just once a year


    ST. PETERSBURG — It is shortly before nine on a Friday morning, and the heat is already approaching unbearable levels at Bay Pines National Cemetery.

    Iles carefully digs up the St. Augustine grass so that it will continue to grow when it is placed back on the gravesite. He tries not to disturb the root base.
  2. State budget uncertainty has school districts 'very concerned'


    While waiting for Gov. Rick Scott to approve or veto the Legislature's education budget, the people in charge of school district checkbooks are trying hard to find a bottom line.

    It has not been easy.

    The unsettled nature of Florida’s education budget has left school districts with questions about how they will make ends meet next year. []
  3. Ernest Hooper: Removing Confederate symbols doesn't eliminate persistent mindset

    Human Interest

    The debate has begun about removing a Confederate statue from outside the Hillsborough County Courthouse, and its removal is long overdue.

    Robert E. Lee Elementary, 305 E. Columbus Drive in Tampa, originally opened its doors in the early 1910s as the Michigan Avenue Grammar School. [Times file]
  4. What you need to know for Monday, May 29


    Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what you need to know today.

    In the weeks before Memorial Day, cemetery caretaker Gary Iles and the staff at Bay Pines National Cemetery are busy preparing the sprawling property for the annual ceremony honoring the fallen. Iles, an Army veteran who started out as a volunteer at Bay Pines, says working at the cemetery is a way for him to continue serving those who died for their country. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
  5. Review / photos: Sunset Music Festival wraps up with Above and Beyond, more at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa


    The first numbers trickled in on Sunday, and they didn't look great.

    Louis the Child performed at the Sunset Music Festival at Raymond James Stadium on May 28, 2017.