Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

St. Lucie County Schools, Vote Wendy Portillo Out

I was thoroughly disgusted when I read about the abuse of a kindergarten student by teacher Wendy Portillo at Morningside Elementary School in Port St. Lucie, Florida. After making five-year-old Alex Barton stand in front of the class as punishment for misbehavior, Portillo told the other students to list what they didn't like about him and then encouraged them to "vote" him out of the class. When she did this, Portillo was aware that Alex had developmental differences and was in the process of being tested for an Asperger's diagnosis. She also knew that his family had recently moved, which would cause any young child—and especially an autistic child—to feel anxious and vulnerable.

Alex's mother, Melissa Barton, reported that he was so upset afterward that she had to withdraw him from school because he started screaming when he saw the building. Police investigated her report of child abuse, but no criminal charges were filed. The St. Lucie County Schools and the Department of Children and Families also are investigating.

There is no excuse whatsoever for a teacher, who ought to be setting an example of positive values, to instead teach a group of kindergarteners to bully and ostracize an emotionally vulnerable child. Wendy Portillo needs to be removed from that classroom immediately, so that she cannot abuse any more children. The St. Lucie County Schools must also be made aware of the need to review and strengthen the school district's policies on preventing bullying and other abuse, as well as training teachers about neurological differences. Contact information is provided below:

Morningside Elementary School Principal:
Mrs. Marcia Cully

(772) 337-6730

St. Lucie County Schools Superintendent:
Michael J. Lannon
4204 Okeechobee Road
Ft. Pierce, FL 34947-5414
Phone: 772/429-3925
FAX: 772/429-3916

St. Lucie County School Board Chair:
Carol Hilson

Vice Chair:
Judith Miller

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is asking all those who write to express their outrage to cc: info@autisticadvocacy.org so that ASAN can keep track of the strength and sources of the response.

Update, May 26: There is an excellent post about Alex Barton and Wendy Portillo on Daily Kos, with hundreds of comments.

Update, May 27: The St. Lucie County School District has removed Wendy Portillo from contact with students while district officials conduct an investigation into her behavior. Also, here is another Daily Kos post with contact information for sending toys and cards to be forwarded to Alex Barton.

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  • Christschool has done a masterful job of compiling draft letters of complaint to the authorities and the media over at Thinking in Metaphors. Anyone who wants to use them please let Christschool know and also forward copies to ASAN who are trying to coordinate responses.

    By Blogger mike stanton, at 4:24 PM  

  • Anonymous and Film Genre Book: I deleted your comments because I do not allow my blog to be used for advocating real-life harassment, nor do I allow offensive misogynistic diatribes.

    By Blogger abfh, at 6:24 PM  

  • Oh, cool, an address to send cards and stuff! Thanks, abfh, I hadn't seen that one, and a lot of people have been asking.

    By Blogger Bev, at 11:26 PM  

  • My heart goes out to Alex.

    Thank you for spreading the message of what happened in that kindergarten classroom.


    By Blogger sapphoq, at 2:33 AM  

  • As a trauma/family therapist for 25 years I sent the following letter to school officials on behalf of Alex Barton. These are strong suggestions for what to do next. [By the way, on blogs there is a suggestion to send him toys. This is a mistake in my opinion; it will make him confused and unaccountably guilty and will not heal the wound he incurred by this teacher at all. But letters might help. Only the following ideas will heal his hurt:]

    Letter sent to St. Lucie School Officials:

    I am writing on behalf of Alex Barton, the 5-year old boy who was made to be shunned by most of his classmates in your school. I am a licensed family and trauma psychotherapist in California -- for 25 years. I have some ideas for what to do next and I hope you will consider them.

    The teacher seriously abused her student and needs to be removed immediately and permanently from working with children.

    ALL the children in the class who were made to shun one child will be negatively affected by what happened in their classroom. They will feel guilty and they will feel vulnerable for the rest of their lives because if this could happen to one child it can happen to them. A skilled educator needs to go into the classroom as soon as possible, preferably today, and tell the children it wasn't their fault, but that it was the teacher's fault what they were encouraged to do. The educator (or therapist) needs to elicit from the children (without coercion) what they felt when they did this and what they think should happen now.

    What should happen now -- planned by the principle and the educator:
    The children, after they have thoroughly discussed the happening, been told they are not at fault but that the teacher did a very bad thing; they should be asked if they can welcome Alex back into the classroom. If they can, (even if some of them hold out) Alex should be welcomed back, with a new teacher, with his former classmates and allowed to finish out the semester.

    If not all of these things are done, this child will be hurt for the rest of his life. Through no fault of his own. Please, I beg you, seriously consider these ideas and implement them today or tomorrow.

    Thank you for reading my letter.

    Sheryll Thomson, Los Angeles, Ca

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:38 PM  

  • I understand the parents view and they have the right to be upset. However, everyday classroom teachers are not taught to deal with EBD (emotionally behavior disturbed) students the way special ed teachers are. These students should be put into EBD classes where they have the structure and educators who know how to deal with them. Believe it or not teachers are human and if they aren't receiving the proper support from their administration and special ed department they can "reach their limit" and make a bad choice. How many of you parents always do and say the right thing! As an educator I was taught that one way to get kids to realize how their behavior and actions affect the other students is to have the other students express their feelings. Example: My head hurts when you choose to scream for 10 minutes. I can't finish my work when you take my pencil. I feel scared when you throw a chair across the room. This may not have been the right thing to do with a student with his disorder and at these students' age. However, when you have tried all else with a disruptive child and the parents put off the behaviors to the disorder it becomes overwhelming. The student with the disorder has a right to a good education but so do all the other children in the same classroom. It is hard to teach and even harder to learn when you have a disruptive student in the room. What about the other students' right to receive a good education! I feel sorry for the teacher. Presidents can make many bad choices and keep their jobs but a teacher isn’t allowed to make one. Doctors can make a mistake that kills someone but they don’t loose their license. Wake up people; the world is full of unfair things and people who make mistakes. Don’t crucify someone over one thing.

    What do you want from your childrens' futures? How are they to become productive adults if they aren't taught how to deal with their behaviors and outburst. Unless you are a parent or work in a specilized field dealing with children with these special needs you wouldn't know the correct way to handle them.

    It's nice to see how forgiving and understanding some of you are.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:45 AM  

  • I am a former elementary teacher. I am happy to see that perfect people like you guys who have never made a mistake of your own involving a child have started a witch hunt. Let's crucify her and send nasty emails to everyone we can think of, including her. If someone can give out her accurate home address, we can even send people over there to cause her personal harm!! Yes, and lets all send toys to reward Alex's behavior. So what if the news is coming from just one side...a mother who compares the teacher to Al Quida and who if you watch the video can't control Alex's constant interrupting her even while sitting on her lap. She never once tries to control him. This teacher was wrong. But you don't know how many times she tried to get help from the office and parents. What about the rights of regular students who can't learn in this dysfunctional enviornment? Alex isn't special? Why of course he is. He is so special that he takes up all the teacher's attention all day long at the expense of the other students. How would you feel if your child had to try to learn as a fellow classmate of Alex's? Doesn't their education matter as well? Some kids have problems so severe that there is little the teacher can do to control them. Sending them to the office brings no real consequences. The district's hands are usually tied when it comes to these children. Talking to parents who themselves have no idea how to control them brings no solution either. Wendy handled this poorly. But she doesn't deserve this level of cruelty. Especially when we are hearing only one side of a story.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:38 PM  

  • to the anonymous elementary school teacher(former). Thank the Gods you are no longer in the school teaching. What 5 year old isn't going to make disruptions when on t.v.? So for you to say she wasn't controlling him, when she was trying to get out important information is just asinine! As it was, he was fairly quiet and not disruptive at all. This also shows your utter lack of knowledge of the ASD spectrum.

    And oh wah, who when we went to school, didn't have disruptive classmates. I know I have in the past had them or been one. It's part and parcel of being in school! You don't send a 5 year old, especially one with issues, to the front to be critiqued.

    You might also want to tone down the whole, you guys must be perfect teachers thing. Many parents of autistic kids, end up homeschooling.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:25 PM  

  • I am a former teacher also, but unlike the other former "teacher," I think it's horrible for anyone to do that to another human being. I am glad they don't teach anymore. It's pretty sad that the former "teacher" has to remain anonymous, and that they can't stand behind their words. Back to the subject at hand - this young man shouldn't have been singled out like that - plain and simple. I don't care if she didn't have the proper "training," or patience to deal with someone who is not classified as "normal." To do that to another person makes a tremendous impact that will last their entire lives. I know teachers aren't perfect; I know I'm not, but a decent human being should know that there's a certain line you can't cross when it comes to how you treat children.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 3:14 PM  

  • To the anonymous teachers and those who responded to them: It is true that Wendy Portillo was not taught how to handle autistic children, and I agree that the district deserves some of the blame for that reason.

    However, it is very wrong to suggest that Alex is "emotionally disturbed" and should not be in a kindergarten class. I read another article explaining that his so-called history of misbehavior consisted of lying underneath tables and kicking them. This is a fairly common behavior for young autistic children, who often get overwhelmed in the classroom and need more sensory input to help them deal with their anxiety. They aren't doing it to get attention or to annoy others, and they can easily be taught not to do it if reasonable accommodations are made for their sensory needs.

    Many teachers have successfully handled this behavioral issue by attaching something soft and flexible to the autistic student's desk, so that he can fidget with it and kick it while staying in his seat and not disturbing anyone. Once again, I don't fault Ms. Portillo for not knowing this, but she certainly should have known that group shaming sessions are never an appropriate form of discipline.

    I hope that the district will provide better training to its teachers now that it has received enough e-mails to be aware that many people take this issue very seriously.

    By Blogger abfh, at 4:21 PM  

  • I am both a teacher and parent of a child with autism, and I can tell you that most EBD programs are NOT designed for children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism is not a behavior disorder, it is a neurological disorder. Behavior difficulties are often a part of autism, but that does not make it a behavior disorder. As for teachers making mistakes, of course they do, as do all humans. However, this was beyond a mistake - it was cruel, inappropriate use of power over a group of children. If Ms. Portillo cannot handle her frustrations, she needs to work in another field where she does not have to deal with young children. Not everyone is cut out to be a teacher.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:24 PM  

  • I am absolutely amazed that anyone, including a "former teacher who knows about the frustrations," would make excuses for such behavior. It doesn't matter if the child is autistic or not. You just don't publicly humiliate a little kid.
    While I do not know if school teachers are required to take classes in psychology, it would definitely help them to do so. Had she taken a simple class in developmental psychology, she would have known that a child of this age is certainly not behaving a certain way on purpose, autistic or not.
    I believe people like her simply should not be allowed to teach. I don't care if she had a perfect record for nine years! She obviously snapped now, so who cares?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:43 PM  

  • A big "Thank you" to Sheryll, the therapist from CA, for that great letter of instruction for Alex's elementary school staff. I hope they take your advice. It will help ALL the children!

    Linda Grable
    Las Vegas, NV

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:48 AM  

  • I am extremely proud of those of you brave enough to make a comment. And -to give your real name. I too, was saddened by this tragedy. And anonymous teachers - this IS a tragedy. I am a parent and a former assistant to children with autism. Either way, I would never do what Ms. Portillo did. No one who cares about children would. Yes, there is a breaking point for all of us - we found hers.... working with children is not for her. The district needs to accept their share of the blame too, you can bet the principal heard plenty of complaints. This is why homeschooling is getting to be so popualar. We (parents) cannot afford to trust the school systems with our childrens self esteem.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:14 AM  

  • "While I do not know if school teachers are required to take classes in psychology, it would definitely help them to do so."

    Yes, actually. Teachers in training all take courses in psychology, and this includes at least the following: child development; educational psychology. And, even in generalist teacher training, there is at least one course or course element that deals with special educational needs.

    "Had she taken a simple class in developmental psychology, she would have known that a child of this age is certainly not behaving a certain way on purpose, autistic or not."


    By Blogger David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E., at 7:31 AM  

  • Thank God Wendy Portillo's judgment was not remotely as misguided (if indeed it was misguided) as the judgment of those who attack her. To attack a teacher who chronically sought the help of her superiors in resolving a problem which was highly detrimental to the education of an entire class of children without attacking her superiors in administration is intellectually unforgiveable. Those with a HIGHER level of responsibility failed not only Alex, but every other child in his class be consistently ensuring by their inaction that Ms. Portillo's students would not have an environment in which their teacher had the ability to focus on her job: educating them. If anyone's head should be on the block, the administration which chronically failed to act should be removed before considering the removal of the teacher who tried everything she could save personally hire a Neuropsychologist to work with Alex. Notably, at the time, Alex' mother had not hired a Neuropsychologist despite extravagant evidence that her son needed medical help. Her failure as a mother to act in a timely manner to help her sick child is certainly much greater than any failure by a teacher to most effectively handle a neuropsychological disorder not entailed in her job description. If you haven't figured out that a parent has a greater responsibility to their own child than does their teacher, I'm not confident that any logic would educate you into sensibility. Ms. Barton failed her child, failed to get him the medical help he needed as expeditiously as she could have; the school's administration totally failed to address the needs of Alex or any other student in his class, and the result was an unfortunate occurrence at his school. Ms. Portillo was fighting in the trenches to help Alex and every other child in her class. Perhaps her judgment was imperfect...perhaps she made a mistake. Left with no way to possibly teach effectively because of the failure of Alex' mom and the school's administration to meet their responsibilities, Ms Portillo continued to try to think "out of the box" to help Alex and his classmates." Ms. Portillo should never have been placed in that position. This good woman should be given back her job, her tenure, back pay, and compensation for the abuse she has suffered because of the incompetence of others with much higher responsibility that she had in this situation. Attack Alex' mother for failing her own son. Attack the administration for failing to address the situation with Alex, and failing every other child in the class. Understand that just like you, Ms. Portillo is human, and will make additional mistakes in her life as a teacher. That's called being human. Truly caring about your students and wanting to educate them makes you a fine human being. Ms. Portillo appears to be one. It's not clear that human condition is true of Alex' mom, the administration who abandoned her, or her attackers.

    By Blogger Pete, at 8:36 PM  

  • I am a mother of a child with autism and an elementary education major. I am not surprised at the lack of education in these "former teachers". Many of my fellow education majors put very little effort in learning their craft. Sometimes I think people pursue education as a career for less than honorable reasons. I live in Port St. Lucie and can attest to the pathetic state of the schools and lack of accountability to students. I had a similar experience with my first grade son. Because these "educators" do not recognize less severe forms of autism, they see many students as odd or badly behaved. The ignorance is so sad!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:38 PM  

  • You people who are saying "nobody's perfect"... the actions of this teacher were way beyond making a mistake or saying something you regretted later. There is NO EXCUSE for what this teacher did. I'm a teacher and I've had to deal with out of control children time and time again in the inner city school where I teach, but I would NEVER, NEVER do what she did. Every year there are kids in my room who have behavior problems. YES they are extremely frustrating, YES it would be nice if they were in a special class instead of mine or had an aide. But I'm not going to take it out on the child because I haven't been "trained" to deal with him!!Am I perfect? No. But would I HUMILIATE a 5 year old like this? H*ll no! Whether or not she had the training or support to properly deal with such a student is irrelevant! You don't have to be "trained" to know that you don't treat a child like this! Give me a break!!! She should be fired. Sending the child to the principal to be paddled would have been more humane than what she did. (I have no idea if that school paddles. I have never taught in a school that paddles. But given the choice between this kind of humiliation and paddling, paddling would be kinder.)

    By Anonymous Linda, at 9:24 PM  

  • And Pete, you are correct: the higher-ups are to be blamed for this situation. But you cannot defend this teacher...it does not take a "perfect" person to know that you don't humiliate a child like this. I've dealt with plenty of kids with severe behavior problems in my regular ed classroom, with little to no support from anyone, but I would NEVER treat a student like that. I've been pushed to the breaking point mnany times with some kids' behaviors (throwing chairs, fighting, refusing to do any work, etc) but my "breaking point" would never include being cruel.
    Anyone who thinks it's ok to humiliate a child in this manner should not be allowed to work with children, period.

    By Anonymous Linda, at 9:38 PM  

  • Wait, so a mother's inability to get effective help for her child is the same as a teacher holding up a disabled child for ridicule? Pete, I don't think so. It's one thing to not know WHAT to do. It's another to take definitive, abusive action. Ms. Portillo was frustrated, her requests for help to school officials went unrecognized, fine.

    But at the end of the day, she was responsible for the well being of a class of very small children, at least one of whom had a neurological problem. The thing is, she just believed he was "attention seeking". And that's where I have a problem. Wendy Portillo is not a psychologist or neurologist. She was not in a position to diagnose Alex, but she had the arrogance to do so anyway. The principal sent Alex back to class and Ms. Portillo wanted her 5-year-olds to support her in her defiance of authority. She is more than welcome to hold her opinion about whatever she wishes, but her belief in her own superiority makes her unsafe around children.

    By Anonymous Jenny, at 1:07 AM  

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