June 8, 2008

Following up on Wendy Portillo

When Wendy Portillo asked Alex Barton's classmates to pass judgment on the autistic boy, she had no clue that she was unleashing a firestorm. Some would say that she simply had no clue.

Comments made on various websites fell into two large camps, with a minority camp attempting to find a middle ground.

The largest camp: Wendy Portillo should be run out of town on a rail, or at the very least fired and barred from teaching.

The second camp, smaller but vitriolic, claims that the teacher is a hero for taking a stand against the practice of placing autistic and special needs children in with the mainstream population.

The smallest camp holds that we should wait until "all the facts are in." This position is best represented by Anthony Westbury, Associate Editor of TC Palm, the service that broke the story.
"I don't know the answers to any of these questions, and (I suspect) nordo you. Perhaps we should put this witch hunt on hold until we do."
He glosses over the fact that his news room posted enough facts for some conclusions to be drawn. The breaking story reported that the police had confirmed the basic facts in the case: the teacher did stand Alex in front of his classmate, she did ask them to tell him why they didn't like him, she did ask them to vote on whether or not he should stay, and she did honor that vote by sending him to the nurse's office for the rest of the day.

In fact, in the same edition he wrote his editorial, TC Palm not only published a story specifically describing how the central facts of the story were confirmed, they also provided a link to the police report.
“Portillo said she explained to them that the students in class were all her priority and she would protect them like a ‘bear defending her cubs,’” the report said.
-- TC Palm, May 29, 2008
Read that statement again: a kindergarten teacher is telling her class that one of their classmates is something they need to be protected from. She's just declared a student to be of less worth than the body as a whole. She cast him out.

And what activity was young Mr. Barton engaged in that made him a menace to his fellow students?
"Throwing crayons on the floor. Kicking a table. Hiding under desks."
-- TC Palm, June 1, 2008
Remember that Alex Barton is five years old, and that he is developmentally challenged. And Wendy Portillo knew this. She knew that he was undergoing evaluation for autism, and she knew that autistic children are neurologically different than the rest of her students. She was part of the discussions being held to create an education plan for Alex.

Personally, I find it irrelevant that Alex has autism. To me that simply makes it worse. You see, I've been Alex Barton. I was a kid who was on the outside at school. Kids liked picking on me; I was small, and easily upset. It was relentless.

In fourth grade, one of our classmates was Frank Charvet. He was French, and physically larger than the rest of us. He wasn't fat, he was just big. I think he was actually older than the rest of the class, but placed with us because that's the level of English he spoke.

The other kids discovered that Frank was desperate to fit in; he would do anything to fit in. So a group of kids decided that Frank should beat the crap out of me if he wanted to be their friend. They grabbed me at recess and dragged me around the side of the building. Even then there weren't enough teachers to monitor the students.

It wasn't much of a fight: Frank was twice my size. He probably didn't want to beat me up; he didn't punch me or hit me, he tossed me around a little bit, threw me to the ground, and jumped on me. I was scrambling, trying to get out from underneath him, and he sat on my back an pinned me in place. He started bouncing on me, and he was laughing, and the other kids were cheering him on, and I was scared shitless.

So I bit him. It was the only thing I could do. I couldn't lift him, I couldn't hit him( and when I could it didn't hurt him.) So I did the only thing I could I grabbed his leg and bit him has hard as I could.

That got him off of me, and ended the fight.

The bite, of course, required a visit to the nurse, and wasn't something Frank could hide from his parents.

But I was the one who was punished. I was the one who was forced to stand in front of the class. It didn't matter that Frank was twice my size, that I was scraped up and had tears in my clothes. "You shouldn't have bitten Frank," said Mrs. Adkins. When I pointed out that I wa pinned, she only repeated "You should have found another way."

I had to write a letter of apology to Frank and his parents. My mother, told that I either wrote the letter or I got suspended, caved in without much of a fight. Maybe she did fight it, I don't really know. What I do know is that I wrote the fucking letter, and had to face the class, and had listen to that lying piece of shit Frank tell me why I was a bad person.

I will be honest with you; it's colored my perception of the school system in the US, and not in a favorable way. Scarred? You bet I've got scars. And I learned that teachers not only can't be trusted, not only won't help you, but that they will turn against you. I learned that there is no justice available to students. Teachers not only don't know everything, but they usually get it wrong. Thanks, Mrs. Atkins.

And it's why I have no problem sacrificing one Wendy Portillo to save one Alex Barton.

This is why I think that Wendy Portillo should be fired:
  • Wendy Portillo taught Alex that the world hates him. Remember, he's five, and he can't see the larger world like you or I. He has just been shown that nearly every one in his world thinks he's disgusting.
  • Wendy Portillo taught the rest of her class that you must fear that which is different; and that you deal with developmentally challenged people by passing judgment on them and banishing them from your society so that you don't have to deal with them.
  • She had the chance to teach her students about how some people are born different, and that just because they are different doesn't mean that they are bad or evil. Instead, she chose to reinforce ignorance and prejudice.

This brings us to the very vocal group of bigots who believe that children who don't match their view of normalcy should be cast out of society and relegated to special institutions where "normal people" won't have to put up with them.

The central question is why anyone would put challenged kids in with typically developed kids; wouldn't they be better off with other challenged kids?

The thing is that autistic kids CAN learn, and they DO learn. Their brains don't make the same connections as you or I, or doesn't make them the same way, but like any human being, they will emulate the examples that surround them. Place an autistic child with typically developed children, and they eventually shape their behavior to reflect the behaviors that they see. Place them with other autistic children, they only become "more" autistic.

And the other reason is that there are a lot of autistic children; one in every 150 children has it.

The exceptionally ignorant argue that the disease is diagnosed in order to excuse poor behavior. The reality is that it's a difficult disease to diagnose even now, and it was harder to identify the farther back you go. The incidence of the disease hasn't climbed; the incidence of diagnosis has. There have always been one in 150 kids suffering the disease. We just didn't know what it was back then, and we did simply write them off as "bad" or "retarded" or "mentally deficient."

Should her school have done more? Possibly. But remember, Morningside Elementary was working on a study program for Alex; it's not like he was just dumped in her class. There were meetings, and consultations with therapists.

We do need to do more to ensure that autistic children can fit into mainstream classrooms without disrupting the education process for the other children. We need to educate our teachers better, and that means paying them more. Teachers shape our future; they should be among the best paid people in a given community. The current pay scales and education processes only ensure that "those who can't do, teach."

Our children deserve better. They deserve teacher who care about all the students.

Wendy Portillo has shown that she does not.

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