Friday, December 3, 2010

Family of autistic Florida boy who was voted out of kindergarten class reaches $350,000 settlement with school district

From TC Palm in Florida:

The mother of Alex Barton (pictured), the autistic child voted out of his St. Lucie County kindergarten class about three years ago, has reached a $350,000 settlement with St. Lucie County education officials, according to federal court documents.

The proposed settlement still requires a review by a guardian ad litem, a third party designated to consider the best interests of the child, before the agreement can be finalized in the courts.

About $200,000 of the settlement, reached Nov. 24 in Miami, is to be paid within 30 days of the court entering the order, the documents show. The remaining amount will be paid in a structured settlement beginning in 2020, when Alex is 18 years old, and ending in 2032, the documents state.

The St. Lucie County School Board and the St. Lucie County Classroom Teachers' Association, the teachers' union, agreed to pay the settlement, with the bulk being paid by the board. The School District was represented by its insurance carrier, which negotiated the settlement, said attorney David Richeson, representing the district.

"Since the settlement is still subject to final approval by the court, this district declines to comment. The court record speaks for itself," Richeson said in a statement.

Alex Barton's mother, Melissa Barton, declined to comment on the case. Vicki Rodriguez, vice president of the St. Lucie County Classroom Teachers Association, also declined to comment because of court order.

In May 2008, Alex, then 5 years old, returned to his kindergarten classroom at Morningside Elementary after being sent to the principal's office twice for discipline referrals. His teacher, Wendy Portillo, brought him to the front of the class and asked other students to tell him how his behavior affected them. She then asked the class to vote on whether Alex should stay in the class. Alex, who was in the process of being tested for Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, lost the vote.

Portillo was given a one-year unpaid suspension by the School Board. She has since served the suspension and returned to teaching in St. Lucie County. Schools Superintendent Michael Lannon originally recommended Portillo be put on an annual contract — Portillo had been tenured — but the board reinstated her tenure.

Melissa Barton filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Florida in 2009.

Barton's lawsuit named the St. Lucie School District, Portillo and the teachers' union as defendants.

Each defendant denies each material allegation and denies committing any wrongdoing, the settlement documents state.

Documents state the agreement does not constitute an admission of liability.

The document states the settlement was reached to avoid further litigation costs.

Portillo's attorney, Allen Sang, said the board indemnified her from having to pay out of her own pocket because she was in the course and scope of her job at the time. Sang said Portillo wants to move on from here.

"She just wants to teach kids," Sang said. "(Portillo) is just very happy to be back in the classroom doing what she loves to do."