Alex Barton wins $350k

3 Dec

You may recall the case of Alex Barton the (then) five year old boy who was ‘voted‘ out of his class:

Melissa Barton said she is considering legal action after her son’s kindergarten teacher led his classmates to vote him out of class.

After each classmate was allowed to say what they didn’t like about Barton’s 5-year-old son, Alex, his Morningside Elementary teacher Wendy Portillo said they were going to take a vote, Barton said.

By a 14 to 2 margin, the students voted Alex — who is in the process of being diagnosed with autism — out of the class.

This was one of the few instances the whole autism community spoke as one to voice their outrage.

Anyway, time has moved on and today it has been announced that Alex Barton has won $350k damages. Good for him.

And I do believe that. It will be good for him. However, I wonder if it is good for the issue of wider autism advocacy. Whilst I believe it is right that he should win this award I notice that:

The teacher who held the vote, Wendy Portillo, was originally suspended a year without pay. The school board has reversed the decision and has reinstated her.

How does this help future autistic children coming through this teachers classroom and who will be exposed to her (to use a very kind word) strange ideas about what autism is and how best to deal with it?

It’s my opinion that she should’ve continued to be placed under suspension (with or without pay) until she had completed a course in autism awareness. That in fact should’ve been the very _least_ that should’ve happened.

Portillo is an educator. An educator at the prime point in a pupil’s life. The lessons and attitudes she shares with them will stay with them for the rest of their lives in some shape or form. At the point she decided to ridicule young Alex Barton she had an opportunity to teach her class the _right_ way to deal with the issue of behaviour in the wider world and also to provide a ‘teachable moment’ to her pupils about what autism was and the nature of autism. She elected to do neither and instead decided to make a mockery of Alex Barton.

The lesson of this incident must stay with the autism community. Autistics are prime targets for ridicule and bullying – even from adults who should know better. We must strive as a whole community to find ways to ensure this doesn’t become any more common than it already is.

10 Responses to “Alex Barton wins $350k”

  1. betty watson December 3, 2010 at 13:04 #

    To be honest, I don’t think training and education related to autism will help this woman…at least not that alone. Truth is, she could do this to any child with a ‘behavior problem’ or behavior that inconvenienced her. It would be no less damaging to a NT child. What she did was cruel and wrong on so many basic levels, she really has shown she should never be allowed to teach again, as she does not have even the most basic understanding of human decency.

  2. Calli Arcale December 3, 2010 at 17:58 #

    I agree with Betty; this is very unlikely to be a case of someone not sufficiently understanding autism. This is a case of someone not sufficiently understanding human decency and the function of a teacher. A person like this won’t stop harassing autistic kids by being better educated on the subject, because a person like this really only cares that the kid is a little more challenging than his classmates. If she was willing to do a thing like this, then she won’t care enough to understand his condition. That she was reinstated horrifies me, and I can just say I’m glad my kids aren’t in her school district.

  3. PP December 3, 2010 at 18:48 #

    I think there is a fundamental issue here of not only genuine acceptance to guide behavior (instead of punishment)… but the nature of this kind of punishment itself that is seen as appropriate by teachers and parents, which is social isolation.

    Behave as I want you to or you will be outcasted. Alfie Kohn refers to this as “emotional blackmail”.

    Social acceptance can be a very deep and physiological primal need. It is also, when not given, one of the most physiologically damaging of human punishments maybe moreseo even than physical punishment. And yet it is seen as the natural way to keep people and children domesticated and appropriate (by the “authority-in-charge’s” definition).

    So if we think of some on the spectrum as having ways of thinking being amplified because of stressors… if functional aspects are paired with dysfunctional aspects… and we seek to “rid” the dysfunctional aspects that are caused by oxidative stress capacities being over-burdened. Then how is it, we are determined that in order to reduce the burden we cause and create more?? Through one of the most oxidative/inflammation/immune impairing/stress causing methods— social isolation??

    It really makes no sense, socially or phsyiologically in my mind, which is why “acceptance” methods, meaning acknowledge and attempting to correct behavior through nurturing and guding (which yes includes some forms of “punishment” at times) but not necessarily the most devastating and anxiety provoking.

    Good for Alex, but i agree kevin, more needs to be done, not only in this individual case, but as an example of what needs to be addresed on an even larger scale in the educational system.

  4. LisaTerry December 4, 2010 at 02:30 #

    well I found another article where Portillo again did this when she returned in 2009 but this time the child was deaf.

  5. Prometheus December 5, 2010 at 20:33 #

    I agree with Betty Watson that no amount of “education” will change Ms. Portillo’s attitude toward children who don’t follow her ideas of “correct” behavior.

    It seems to be a common fallacy among the well-educated that education can correct moral failings and character flaws. Unfortunately, the type of “education” needed to correct a problem is generally the same type that was used to create the problem.

    If Ms. Portillo’s problem was that she was using the wrong teaching method, that problem might be correctable through a series of remedial classes. However, Ms. Portillo’s problem is that she is intolerant of people who think differently – something that she probably learned through example during her childhood and early adult years. The only way to “correct” that problem would be to force her to repeat those years under better instruction.

    When we uncover people whose moral compass is incompatible with teaching (or medicine or banking or government or…), we need to remove them from those positions and not just have them sit through “classes” where they generally learn only how to keep their moral dysfunction from being detected. As I see it, removing Ms. Portillo from teaching – permanently – is no more controversial than permanently “grounding” a pilot who is blind.


  6. David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. December 6, 2010 at 09:12 #

    “It’s my opinion that she should’ve continued to be placed under suspension (with or without pay) until she had completed a course in autism awareness. That in fact should’ve been the very least that should’ve happened.”

    I would have gone further than that. I would have made it a condition of her employment that she complete – at her own expense – not just an autism awareness course, but a course of training (at a university) with the aim of gaining proper expertise… which expertise she should be expected to demonstrate on every occasion she was working, if she wanted to keep her job.

    “Autistics are prime targets for ridicule and bullying – even from adults who should know better. We must strive as a whole community to find ways to ensure this doesn’t become any more common than it already is.”

    This is true. As an autistic adult in Finland, I’ve experienced it at the hands of the very people who are supposed to be there to provide the support that I need to make some headway in my life: the social welfare office; the social insurance/benefits office; the ministry of labour’s local job centre; the disability services… along with these offices, I should have been making a plan. No such plan has materialised, and this hasn’t been for want of me putting the effort in. As to whether educating and training these people is worth it, in terms of any likely changes in their behaviour towards vulnerable groups, I couldn’t really say. As a psychologist, I should be prepared to keep an open mind as to the improving effects of proper education and training on human services and education staff; but – with 12 years’ experience of what those people are like (at least in Finland) – I don’t see much reason to hold out hope.

    I’m glad that Alex got this money. It was the least he deserved after the stupidity he was put through by Portillo. There was nothing useful in how she behaved on that occasion, and it was a seriously nasty thing to do to anyone, let alone an autistic child.

    Thing is… if this sort of system-based bullying is prevalent for those who are Alex’s age, and if it is still there when someone reaches my age, this is definitely not an issue about the autistic (or otherwise vulnerable) person: it is about society and what guides it to allowing this sort of stuff to happen.

  7. BethW, M. Ed. December 8, 2010 at 20:05 #

    I agree with those who have said that additional training would do little (if anything) to help a “teacher” like this. A person who causes another human being – particularly a child – to suffer such obvious humiliation, and forces other children to engage in it, has no business being in the classroom. It doesn’t matter whether the child is disabled or not, although it makes this case especially troubling that young Alex has autism. I taught in a school in which one of the 3rd-grade teachers used this sort of “discipline”, requiring other students to ignore those who misbehaved. I think it’s more common than people realize, and personally I would rather see larger classes taught by better-qualified teachers than have school systems allow people like Ms. Portillo to continue teaching. And it wouldn’t hurt for administrators to make it clear to their teachers what sort of classroom management techniques are appropriate and which are not.

  8. Martin December 9, 2010 at 23:44 #

    Wendy Portillo is a the reason why teachers are seen as “those who can DO and those who can’t TEACH”. I had teachers like her, bullies with inferiority complexes that took it out on the children in her charge. She should have been fired.
    I hope she gets lots of hate mail and the district gets it as well. Maybe its her turn to be bullied rather than bully a defenseless 5 year old. What a F B***H!


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