And a New Goat

As I posted yesterday, I think we have two new heroes in the kindergarten class at Morningside Elementary School in Port St. Lucie Florida. We probably, to some degree, also have a (scape)goat.

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.

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9 Responses to And a New Goat

  1. Pingback: The Golden Rule « Odd One Out

  2. Pingback: Whitterer on Autism » Blog Archive » Alex Barton

  3. Hannah says:

    Thank you for your two posts on Alex Barton and Wendy Portillo. I’m so impressed with those two kids who voted “no”. If only there was a way to honor them while protecting their privacy. Suffice to say, they make me feel much more optimistic.

    I think that people sometimes forget that it is possible to sympathize with someone and still hold them accountable for their actions. Although I personally think that Ms. Portillo should be fired, we can still learn a lot by looking at the circumstances surrounding the incident and what could have been done differently, in terms of special needs training and accommodations.

  4. thewildeman2 says:

    I’m sorry, but I disagree with putting him back in that class. As it is, he goes into a meltdown just taking his siblings to school. He will need extensive therapy before he can return to a class setting. As it is, every child in that class needs counseling to unlearn what their teacher taught them that day. The two others are heroes, on that you are correct. Ms. Portillo has become an abuser, and you cannot put the victim back with the abuser. Would you want to go back? We autistics are impacted by the world around us at levels that stymie comprehension. Because of that, a trauma that may be simple to you can seem like the end of the world to an autistic. I am posting a video in Alex’s honor, you can find it on youtube (soon) and my username is: thewildeman2

  5. I wouldn’t let that teacher near my dog, never mind another child.

    Surely the teacher had or could have developed other options in dealing with [her frustrations over?] the misbehaviors of a five year old.

    spike q. furious

  6. jennyanne says:

    I believe that Alex as well as his family suffered a great deal of harm, and he should be placed in counseling or therapy to help him regain confidence and self worth. A counsleor should also be brought into the classroom to teach appropriate methods for conflict resolution. I can only imagine how these children value themselves and each other due to this survivor mentality.
    Also, all teachers are given a general background on special education as well as their needs/ possible classroom strategies, while in college. It is obvious that this teacher has not been trained well as she relies on the t.v. for guidence. This teacher should be let go, as she needs the time to go back to school.
    This is a horrendous tragedy, not only to Alex but to everyone involved.

  7. arlene says:

    I know Mrs. Portillo she was my sons teacher last year.I agree she is a wonderful person and teacher. And I hope that she is around next year to teach mt next child that will be starting to morningside. My prayer are with her.

  8. Oengus says:

    The school is negligent, if the child was diagnosed as having special needs then the teacher is required to have training in dealing with those needs. That is crucial to Alex, in that defining who he is will stay with him, is his disruptive behavior emotional or neurologically related. Doing that takes time, to go further society has a systemic problem as to who takes the responsibility for diagnosis. It should begin outside of school signals should be apparent and testing should be done before age five and kindergarten class. The systemic problem is that of insurance often, since neurological is covered and emotional is not. To go further yet if the child does not have or gets a diagnoses of Aspergers then treatment and counseling is required for the family and not covered often under standard insurances.

    Keep an open mind, the child is disruptive, the reason is not yet defined. A diagnosis of Aspergers is that of neurological damage or dysfunction and takes the responsibility or cause to development from the point of conception. In common, terms had been born that way. If the disruptive behavior is emotional then the child was not born that way, both are environmental, however, the later is do to the environment within the household.

    If the child demonstrates signs of neurological damage or dysfunction that has to be done by a licensed clinician or doctor not a parent, they are not objective since the alternative cause of the problem could in fact be them.

    Then since most parents are not able to handle or address a neurological issue, they them selves are contributors to the developmental problems. Is the parent that takes the wrong approach in addressing the child’s special needs considered abusive? What this teachers did was not that outrageous if the child is not Asperger, if she had been informed that the child was clinically diagnosed then that a different scenario.

    It not the teacher it is the school, they should have had the child tested and in so much the teacher should have had special training to address it, the teacher is also victim of the systemic problem. It’s a lack of funding and lack of accountability, keep in mind that Aspergers is harder to detect than lower level autism, if the child is devoid of symptoms they could be emotionally damaged and it could be the home that is causing that.

  9. Jake Joehl says:

    I don’t have autism and in fact have a visual impairment, but I would like to comment. Regardless of whether or not Ms. Portillo had any training in dealing with people who have autism, I think this was a horrific event and she definitely needs to be reprimanded somehow, perhaps even fired. What Alex and the other students need is counseling by a trained professional in that field. It’s absolutely shocking to me what people can get away with sometimes! Those of us with disabilities are not just inanimate objects–we’re human and we have feelings just like all other humans do. I think that the school district in question should be sued for letting such an event happen and then trying to candy-coat it.

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