I paid more attention to the story about Alex Barton than I have to any news story related to autism in a long time. I even blogged about it myself three times. Oops, this makes four. Even my quiet little blog received links and visitors from all over the internet as a large number of people propagated this story and an even larger group followed it.
As I observed the phenomena that grew for days, I recognized that the term to best describe it is Mob Advocacy. There have been many facets of this phenomena. I’ll call the three most prominent aspects The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
The best thing about the mob advocacy is that it put a large amount of pressure on the St. Lucie County school district to address the mistreatment of Alex Barton. Prior to the mob getting involved, it seems that local officials did not take the issue very seriously. The incident happened on Wednesday, and Alex’s mother appears to have filed several complaints that did not have much impact. The police and the district attorney did not file charges and the teacher, Ms. Wendy Portillo taught her class on Thursday and Friday as if nothing happened.
However, on Saturday, a news story ran on a web site. It was picked up by a blogger with a lot of readers. Other bloggers posted about it, and others sent emails to get the word out. A few found the email addresses of the teacher, principal and the school board and published them. Many sent emails to all of these people as well as the Governor of Florida. By Monday it was one of the top stories on many websites that have nothing to do with autism. By Tuesday, the school principal received over 700 hundred emails and the superintendent received over three hundred. Alex and his mother appeared on CBS’ The Early Show, and Mis Portillo was removed from the classroom and assigned to the district offices.
The story is far from over, but it appears that mob advocacy resulted in the school district giving the incident the serious attention it deserves.
You’re probably expecting "The Bad" to refer to the hateful remarks that became part of the discussion. I’ll save that for "The Ugly".
The Bad aspect of Mob Advocacy is that while many people played a role in garnering attention there is very little true advocacy we can do. We can demand that Ms. Portillo be fired, chastise the school district for allowing this to happen, make arrogant statements indicating that we know what the most appropriate school placement is for Alex. The reality is that this type of advocacy, coming from people who do not know the situation, is hollow.
I don’t know Alex, Ms. Barton, Ms. Portillo or any others involved. I don’t know what Ms. Barton wants to come from this situation and if I could truly advocate, I’d want it to be for what she wants for Alex. Outsiders like myself can propose solutions, but in the end, we’re too far away from the details to know what is best for Alex, what the appropriate consequences are for Ms. Portillo, or how to repair the damage of the lesson taught to Alex’s classmates. After sending emails to the school officials, I emailed Ms. Barton and expressed my sentiments about the difficulty I felt in advocating appropriately for Alex. I wrote that the best I could hope for was to "give you a little more leverage to advocate on Alex’s behalf." It’s something, but it doesn’t seem like enough.
It must be part of human nature that when large groups of people come together, in person or simply uniting behind a cause, ugly things will happen. Many people wrote horrible things on-line about Ms. Portillo. Others wrote extremely insensitive things about Alex and autism. Others blamed the entire situation on Ms. Barton’s parenting. These people and their comments were a small minority, but they added an ugliness to the discussion that was not needed.
Bev at AspergerSquare8 wrote a beautifully honest and candid post expressing frustration with the ugliness that began to permeate the dialogue:
“I have made terrible mistakes in my life. I have harmed people. I have done my best to make amends for those wrongs and not to repeat the hurtful actions. I know that if my worst moments were shown to the world, were discussed on numerous sites, some with nearly a thousand comments now, I would not want to continue living. Yet I believe in redemption (not in a passive sense, but through hard work toward change) and I hope that others, including Portillo, do too.
When people start coming to my blog and talking about revenge and sending people to hell, it is time to take a break.”
In encourage you to read her entire post. She has truly set the tone for continuing the Advocacy, but rising above the Mob mentality.