Don’t get me wrong, the teacher, Ms. Wendy Portillo, should likely be fired for bullying one of her students. Teachers (as do all of us) make mistakes, but this is one that went way too far over the line and caused harm to a student. Yes we all make mistakes, and there are always consequences of those mistakes. In addition to harming a child, the consequences should probably include loss of a job. But read on, maybe there are more constructive consequences.
I can’t put the entire blame for this tragic situation on Ms. Portillo. Based on the limited amount of information in the few mainstream news stories (which I never completely trust to be fair and balanced), I’ve come to the following conclusions:
- Ms. Portillo was not qualified to teach Alex Barton. I draw this conclusion from Alex’s mother’s statement that he spent much of the time in the principal’s office since arriving at school in January. Ms. Portillo was obviously not able to keep Alex in her classroom I consider this evidence that lacked the skills to appropriately teach Alex
- The district’s placement of Alex Barton in Ms. Portillo’s class does not fit the definition of a “Free and Appropriate Education” mandated by the IDEA laws in the US. It appears the district put Alex in an education setting that did not include the appropriate supports to address his “Individual” needs as required by law. I again base this conclusion on the mother’s statement that Alex spent so much time in the principal’s office. If he school placement was appropriate, he would not be spending time in the principal’s office.
- The school district and parents were working on an IEP, but I suspect that it had not yet been implemented. The school district appears to have been waiting for the entire process to be completed, which can take months, before providing Alex with appropriate supports. I base this conclusion on the article’s references that the IEP was being developed but it never stated that it had been implemented. It also appears that the district took the all too common approach of starting by providing minimal services, with the promise that more services will be added if needed. In my experience, with multiple children on the autism spectrum with behavioral issues, this approach is almost always doomed to fail.
- It appears that Alex had “behavioral issues” but there is no evidence mentioned that he had an appropriate Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) or anyone gathering data on the antecedents to these behavioral issues. Again I base this conclusion on the article quoting Alex’s mom as saying there were “disciplinary issues”. Discipline is only one way to address behavioral issues and it is often very ineffective for kids with ASDs. I consider a BIP mandatory in these situations as without one, teachers make it up as they go along. The data collected by observing antecedents to behavioral issues and the success of the BIP should be used to make classroom accommodations and adapt the BIP whenever needed.
Considering the lack of support for Alex, and all the responsibility being placed on Ms. Portillo, it is possible that her frustration with being stranded in a situation for which she was not qualified mounted over time and she became exasperated and eventually stepped over the line and harmed a child. She could have done a lot of other things (and maybe she did) such as calling an emergency PPT, calling a meeting with the principal, escalating the issue to the superintendent or perhaps played another card and escalating to the teacher’s union. All could have lead to different outcomes. Ms. Portillo made her choice.
One part of me wants to see Ms. Potillo fired. Her actions justify it. Another part of me would like to see a different outcome, one that attempts to directly address the issues and set a more positive tone for all involved. One encouraging sign is that Ms. Portillo admits to what she did and I see no indication in the article that she tried to “spin” her admission.
Call me naive (and you’d be right), but I like to tackle problems head on and what I’d like to see is the following as an attempt to fix as much of the damage as possible. This will only work if Ms. Portillo’s actions were an act of desperation and not a reflection of innate meanness:
- The parents and the school find some way to get Alex back into the classroom.
- Someone from outside the school with expertise in explaining autism to children is present when Alex returns.
- Ms. Portillo publicly apologizes to Alex and the rest of the class and dishes out extensive amount of praise on the two students that voted to keep Alex in the class. She also admits that she did not know much about autism but is now learning.
- Ms. Portillo explains her regret in not being able to provide Alex the additional supports that he needs.
- The outside individual with experience in autism explains some of Alex’s differences, and the issues in the classroom, that caused him to behave in certain ways.
- Each student in the classroom is given an opportunity to tell the class about difficulties they’ve experienced in the classroom, as well as what they could do differently to make things less difficult for others, including for Alex. I expect an outside expert could be of great help facilitating this .
- If this goes well, the school system provides an intense amount of support in the classroom for the remaining few weeks of the school year.
- The PPT team identifies an appropriate program and placement for Alex for the fall. It may be a different program but, with the above actions, at least Alex stands a chance of leaving this placement on a positive note. He certainly deserves that. The other students deserve it as well.
The likelihood that the school takes this type of approach is very, very low. They’d have to admit they made mistakes which opens them up even further to getting sued. However, if we focus on the kids, Alex and all his classmates, the opportunity to teach the correct lesson becomes smaller with each passing day. If Alex is placed in a different school program for next year, the opportunity it is completely over when this school year ends.