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KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Humiliation of Alex Barton

Sometimes the way society treats those who are different in some way makes me think we're still in the Dark Ages. The blog I Speak of Dreams reported today:

Wendy Portillo is the [Florida] kindergarten teacher who directed her students to reject and humiliate Alex Barton, a fellow student. Her actions are inexcusable under any circumstances. L'affaire Barton has exploded in the autism blogosphere, because young Alex has just been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

Portillo is reported to have asked her students, including little Alex's best friend, to vote on whether they wanted to allow him to stay in class. This has traumatized the boy, who screams in terror whenever he is taken near the school.

As of this morning, Portillo has been "reassigned." According to the TCPalm, Portillo has been a St. Lucie County teacher for 12 years, and at Morningside Elementary for nine. Alex Barton's mother isn't pleased with the district's response: Barton said she thinks Portillo should be fired. "She has no business being near children at all," she said. As to the news of Portillo being reassigned, Barton responded, "That's just a slap in the face."

The school is Morningside Elementary in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. I have e-mailed the school officials there, as suggested by the Alex Barton page of the web site of the Autistic Self Advocay Network, urging that they take appropriate action:

Dear Principal Cully, Superintendent Lannon, School Board Chair Hilson, and School Board Vice Chair Miller:

I am writing you about the news reports that state that 5-year-old Alex Barton, who has apparently just been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, was humiliated by his classmates at the behest of teacher Wendy Portillo.

I am the wife of a dear 46-year-old man with mild attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), the daughter-in-law of a 72-year-old man with severe AD/HD and anxiety, and the mother of two sons, a 13-year-old with severe AD/HD, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder and 6-year-old with mild AD/HD. I live in the House of AD/HD.

Of all of those males, only my father-in-law was ever treated as poorly by the education system as it appears that Alex Barton has been treated. (That is not to say that schoolchildren, on their own, never tried to treat my husband or either of my sons poorly.) Humiliation, being told one is disgusting, being made to feel that one doesn't belong—these are events that help shatter self-esteem. My father-in-law grew up when educators and psychologists and psychiatrists alike knew nothing about neurobehavioral disorders. One psychologist told his mother that the boy had "a screw loose." Teachers berated him, saying he was lazy and stupid. As he grew into an adult, still without a diagnosis, people misunderstood his odd social interactions; they did not know that social skills did not come naturally to him the way they do to people without AD/HD and without other neurobehavioral deficits. Put down all his life, by family members and coworkers and strangers and alleged friends, he became someone who is suspicious of everyone's motives; he became someone who to this day is not pleasant to be around. And yet he is a brilliant jazz and blues keyboardist and vocalist. Sadly, at age 72, he has only 1 friend and is valued by people outside his family pretty much only for his skills as a musician.

I am saddened to think of the wasted relationships that that man has been in. How much joy could he have gotten from life if some teachers, some health care providers, had taken the time to get to know the little boy behind the outsize tantrums, the talents behind the inability to ever sit still, the tender heart behind the bravado and apparent disobedience. My father-in-law himself was stunned when, back when my now 13-year-old was determined eligible, in third grade, for an IEP [individualized education program]. "My God," he said, after the meeting of my school district's committee on special education, "all of these people are here to care for my grandson, to help him." He teared up. "Back when I was his age, they said I was crazy, that I had a screw loose." I saw the hurt little boy that still hides behind my father-in-law's gruff, hard-to-like personality, made that way by years of humiliation from all sides.

My 13-year-old is a very smart guy whom I believe will grow up to make some great scientific contribution to society. But my son wouldn't be on his way to getting there had he been treated by his teachers the way that Wendy Portillo allegedly treated little Alex Barton. My son has had years of outstanding, caring teachers, school social workers, school psychologists, and teaching paraprofessionals helping him learn to break big education tasks down into manageable bites and helping him learn the social skills that are so foreign to many children with neurobehavioral disorders. I thank the universe at least once daily for the wonderful educators and school officials who make it possible for my son's intelligence and sweet personality to shine through.

After my 13-year-old's disability was diagnosed and he began taking medication and my husband and I began using behavioral modification with him, we turned to look at my husband's life. And he saw the AD/HD in himself, just as my father-in-law then saw his own AD/HD. Both men began taking prescribed medication, and both have learned new social and life-balancing skills.

And now my 6-year-old has recently been diagnosed as having mild AD/HD. He will get the same wonderful assistance from our school district. He has a grandfather, father, and big brother to lean on when it comes to learning coping skills for AD/HD.

But what will happen to little Alex Barton?

Already, he has been taught that adults who are supposed to care for him—teachers—can't be trusted, that they will help others hurt him, that they will make him cry. He has learned that other children may be his enemies, and that they can be turned against him by grown-ups. He is at a critical point in the development of his self-image and self-esteem. Will you let Ms. Portillo and other teachers continue to drop-kick his feelings? Will you let Ms. Portillo continue to teach other children that it is right or even fun to hurt fellow students?

Please, stop this tragedy now before it worsens. Find a way to make this up to little Alex. Send Ms. Portillo off to be educated on how to work with special-needs children, for Alex is not the last one she will encounter; if she cannot or will not learn such skills, she should not ever again be allowed to work with children. Educate all teachers in your district about working with special-needs children and about the fragility of children's self-esteem. Work with Alex's family to build the best IEP possible, one that will help him shine.

Please do not destroy a child's soul, for if you do, society will pay a high, tragic cost.

Readers, please consider writing the St. Lucie County school officials about this case. Please do so respectfully and eloquently, please cc the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and please do it now. Help save a boy's life.

Updated 5/28/08 at 12:40 a.m.: I have also e-mailed Florida's governor, Charlie Crist, about education standards for teachers in his state, which should include teaching them how to work with special-needs children.

Updated at 1:14 p.m.: Go here to find a video of a TV interview with Alex's mother.

Updated at 6:05 p.m.: Here is the latest news story about Alex from the local Florida newspaper. Click here to send a message of support to Alex.



Anonymous said...

So very, very well said. My brother has ADHD, my daughter has it, and I have a mild form of ADD (no hyperactivity). I was the overachiever, daydreamer type, so wasn't affected in the ways you describe here. However, my daughter and my brother both were, and I was moved to tears with this letter. I fought a school system and lost with my daughter - I was a very young single parent and they refused to listen to me. However, her determination and strength prevailed, even after dropping out of school and leaving home at 17. She got her GED and finally, at 27 - of her own doing - has completed Veterinary Assistant school and graduates Friday. She's overcome many challenges and I think that the school system she had to endure did the most damage. Same for my brother. They said he was retarded. Literally. They used that word. He's far from retarded.

I will consider writing a letter. Thank you for posting this and bringing it to our attention.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Oh, hugs to the children that you, your daughter, and your brother once were, LittleMis, and hugs to the adults that all of you have become.

Robert Rouse said...

We have been through several case conferences and principle-parent meetings over suspensions and an expulsion for our oldest son who is now a teenager. We adopted him not knowing just how much we were getting into. Dustin suffers from FASD and has also been diagnosed as having Asperger's - a form of autism. However, because FASD and Asperger's present so closely that many of the symptoms are interchangeable - so believe it's really just the FASD. His birth mother drank like a fish and he was finally removed from her home at the age of four due to severe physical and mental abuse. By the time we took Dustin in as Foster parents at the age of 6 he had already been through ten other placements. We adopted Dustin just before his 8th birthday. One thing we discovered was important while we were fostering - overall, we fostered four other children - is the need to have a trained advocate for your child at a case conference or disciplinary meeting. Part of our training to be foster parents for special needs children required us to train to become student advocates. We sat in on quite a few family sessions to remind the administration exactly what rights a special needs child has. We won every time. You have to fight for your kids and know and understand your rights and your child's rights.

Stephanie E. said...

Oh god, oh god, how awful. The news report--the details of what she had the other children say and do and how it affected Alex--brought me to fast tears. That poor little boy. How could they possibly do anything but fire her? Years ago, I witnessed impatient, sometimes mean treatment of an autistic toddler whom I loved, and it was horrible, but it didn't even come close--didn't even compare--to this. How could anyone, let alone a teacher, direct such cruelty at a five-year-old child? He must have been so crushed. What she did was unthinkable--and so is the district's decision to simply reassign her.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Robert, you are so right—parents are their children's best advocates. My school district knows from long experience that my husband and I are fierce advocates for our children's rights and well-being.

Stephanie, I just can't picture Alex's teacher as having a heart.

BillK said...


Anonymous said...

Grrrr. This makes me so sad and angry. Even if Alex Barton had no issues at all, what that teacher did was abusive and completely inappropriate. I'm shocked that she still has a job after teaching her students to turn on one another like that and humiliating Alex.

But--having had a public-school teacher who attributed my after-lunch stomachaches to the wrath of God rather than lactose intolerance--I am not especially surprised.

Stephanie E. said...

The teacher's "side" as detailed in the police report was given this morning: http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2008/may/29/police-report-reveals-teachers-side-incident-which/

Stephanie E. said...

Hmm...it appears that may not have gone through. Let's try again: the teacher's side.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Thanks for that link, Stephanie. It's obvious that the teacher has no understanding whatsoever of neurobehaviorial disorders. If she did, she'd realize that Alex likely has very little control over what he's doing, without specialized behavioral training, especially when he's in a hostile environment. That woman needs some serious education about special-needs kids. And whether she had the kids vote him out of the class permanently or just for the day, that's just wrong. No adult should treat any child—special needs or not—that way.

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