A Florida kindergarten teacher was suspended for polling her students on whether an autistic boy should remain in class.
Alex Barton, 5, lost the vote 14 to 2.
Barton, a former student at Morningside Elementary School in Port St. Lucie, Fla., had received two discipline referrals to the principal’s office May 21, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported. The school was aware that Barton was in the process of being tested for Asperger’s Syndrome.
This week, the St. Lucie County School Board voted unanimously to suspend his tenured teacher, Wendy Portillo, for one year without pay. Superintendent of Schools Michael Lannon recommended discipline after Portillo took Barton to the front of the class and asked students to tell the boy what they didn’t like about his behavior and how it impacted them.
Barton said the teacher allowed his classmates to call him “disgusting” and “annoying.”
The teacher then asked her students to vote on whether Barton would be allowed to stay. When Barton lost the vote, he was instructed to spend the rest of the day in the nurse’s office.
According to a police report, “Portillo said she did this as she felt that if (Alex) heard from his classmates how his behavior affected them that it would make a bigger difference to him, rather than just hearing it from adults.”
But Lannon said Portillo’s actions “caused community and, in fact, worldwide outrage and condemnation.” He said her attempt to influence a 5-year-old’s behavior by subjecting him to the scrutiny of his peers was “fatally flawed” and violated professional ethics.
“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.”
Portillo has been re-assigned to district offices and plans to contest the vote with the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings, according to the report. If she is successful, she will resume teaching and receive back pay.
Criminal charges will not be filed against Portillo, because authorities determined the incident did not amount to emotional child abuse. However, the boy’s mother, Melissa Barton, said she plans to file a civil lawsuit, claiming discrimination and violation of the child’s civil rights.
“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.”
She is now homeschooling her son, and claims his self-esteem has seriously suffered. He begins screaming when she brings him with her to drop his siblings off at school.
“It’s going to be very, very hard to get him in a classroom setting,” she said. “He does not want to go.”