November 19, 2008

St Lucie County School Board: F-

I've written about Wendy Portillo before. She's the teacher who humiliated a five-year old autistic boy in front of his classmates, back in May 2008.

A month later, I followed up on the story. By this time, we had access to the police report, and it wasn't pretty. According to her statement to police, she told the rest of the class that she would protect them from Alex Barton "like a mother bear defending its cubs."

And what did she report he was doing to warrant this? Throwing crayons and hiding under his desk.

In September, I looked into the story again. And I found Portillo was still employed by the St. Lucie County School District. Basically, they were dragging their feet.

So here it is November, and the St. Lucie County School District has finally taken action in the case: they suspended Portillo for a year, and then she will placed on a yearly contract.
Board members acted on a recommendation by Superintendent of Schools Michael Lannon, who also recommended that Portillo be put on an annual contract -- Portillo had been tenured -- and plans to ask the state Board of Education to revoke her teaching certificate for one year.
That is actually a demotion: Portillo had tenure before traumatizing one of her students.
Lannon wrote Portillo a letter stating that her actions "caused community and, in fact, worldwide outrage and condemnation."
That is true, but what about the damage she did to Alex Barton and his classmates? Does a year suspension and a loss of status make up for the damage she's done?
Lannon cited as mitigating circumstances Portillo's positive evaluations by five different principals during 12 years of teaching in St. Lucie County schools.
That's all well and good. But frankly, that shouldn't count in this at all. What if she had thrown him over her knee and given him a whuppin', or sexually abused Barton? Would we look at past performance to mitigate the damage she's done? I certainly hope not!

Lannon wrote a letter to Portillo, explaining his actions:
"Causing 5- and 6-year-old peers to pass judgment on one of their own, to state the reasons for their 'vote' and then to act on the outcome is a true failure to apply professional judgment at best," Lannon wrote. "Very often we, as teachers, provide the safest and most protective environment many children have. We cannot abandon that duty."
Of course, Portillo is completely unrepentant, and her lawyer informed the school board that they intend to contest the recommendation with the Division of Adminstrative Hearings.

Alex Barton has never returned to school; he is now in a home-schooling program. While I normally have nothing against home-schooling, it's not conducive to helping a child with mild autism learn to cope with the world. His mother certainly isn't satisfied:
"This woman needs to be fired," she said. "There is no reason for someone with that mentality to be around children. I think nothing less than her being terminated needs to happen."
The Bartons have informed the School District that they intend to file suit against the district, and legal experts generally concur that the case has merit.

According to TCPalm:
Jack Scott, director of the Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, called the board’s action “a slap on the wrist.”

Scott said the board’s action shows the system dealing with students’ rights is not strong. There might be an undue concern for teachers’ employment rights, he said.
The sad part is that School District has not only failed Alex, but it's continuing to fail its students:

Port St. Lucie autistic student's parents say son abused at Oak Hammock K-8
The parents of an autistic boy claim in a lawsuit filed this week against the St. Lucie County School District their then-7-year-old was battered and abused by his behavior analyst at Oak Hammock K-8.

The St. Lucie County School Board either didn't conduct an investigation or didn't conduct a meaningful or thorough investigation, even though employees knew of the incident, the 18-page complaint says.
St. Lucie County obviously isn't a place to send your kids to school. And with weak-willed adminstrators and school board members, it's unlikely to improve any time soon.


  1. As a father of two children with autism, I can't help but wonder how Ms. Portillo would react if a child received the same treatment because he was black. The NAACP would be all over this. Or what if the boy acted too feminine or was kissing the other boys? GLAAD would be picketing as we speak. This is just one story of far too many that parents of children with autism must deal with from time to time.

    And this is coming from someone who AGREES with Denis Leary's recent comments.

  2. Balkan Patterson Lawsuit against St. Lucie School District