Monday, May 25, 2009

The one-year anniversary of the case of the kindergartener with autism, voted out of his class, who got the country talking about classroom dynamics

From the TC Palm in West Palm Beach, Fla.:

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — One year ago, a 6-year-old autistic boy was brought to the front of his classroom. He left moments later feeling like an outcast.

For many, he became a symbol of how children with autism are mistreated and misunderstood.

Some experts say the case of Alex Barton, who was voted out of his kindergarten classroom 14-to-2, brought about change and awareness of how autistic children are educated. Others say there still is a long way to go.

Within hours after the vote, Alex was known worldwide as the boy whose teacher led his peers to vote him out of his kindergarten classroom.

He was the topic of blogs, national television reports and radio programs.

Hundreds wrote e-mails and letters of support to his family, while others sent angry messages to the St. Lucie County School District and Morningside Elementary School demanding the teacher, Wendy Portillo, be fired.

The district also heard from supporters of Portillo. Just under half of the Morningside teachers signed a petition supporting her.

Schools Superintendent Michael Lannon testified in March that negative comments far outweighed the supporters after the initial news report.

The state attorney general's office talked with Alex's mother about the incident and encouraged other parents of autistic children to talk about their school experiences.

More than 100 parents called the office hotline, but no statewide meeting materialized.

"Due to a phenomenal response from parents of autistic children, our office was not able to host a meeting to accommodate everyone's schedule," spokeswoman Sandi Copes said.

The office joined The 100 Ideas Foundation, which had a two-day conference about autism in Orlando last fall. Treasure Coast families attended.

The 100 Ideas Foundation is a nonprofit group that was launched by former House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, to help discuss statewide issues and ideas. The group's Web site does not list any additional conferences.

Phyllis Musumeci, who became a national autism advocate after her autistic son was physically restrained 89 times while attending a Palm Beach County school, said nothing ever came of the conference.

"They did nothing," Musumeci said about the attorney general's office

Musumeci said that, even after Alex's case, there have been other news articles this year about autistic children being mistreated in schools.

Her fight to get laws changed about restraints and seclusion rooms in schools was unsuccessful. Despite calls to a long list of agencies and politicians, Musumeci said no one has helped her and other parent advocates. Many tell her they have no authority over schools and what goes on during the school day.

"If anything, things are worse," she said.

But Jack Scott, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Florida Atlantic University, said the incident created some awareness.

"There's far greater sensitivity (in schools)," he said. Districts, schools and teachers are trying to learn more so a similar situation doesn't happen, he said. There is a greater likelihood teachers and schools will look for training now, he said.

More than 100 teachers attended the center's second annual teacher institute on their own time in July and school districts got together earlier this month to talk about changes they've made in how autistic students are taught, he said. The attendance was a few more than attended the first year in 2007.

Scott said still more needs to be done, however.

There is still a polarization on the issue of autistic children being in general education classes with typically developed children, he said.

And, Scott said, based on letters to the editor and comments made online on news stories, there are still many people who mistakenly believe autism is a behavioral issue that can be corrected with disciplinary methods.

Schools have to teach children with autism how to behave so they can function socially, he said. When a child is determined to have special needs, districts and schools should be able to handle these needs, he said.


•After being sent to the office once for kicking a table with his legs and throwing crayons, Alex Barton, then 5, returned to his kindergarten classroom at Morningside Elementary in Port St. Lucie.

•His teacher, Wendy Portillo, brought him to the front of the class.

•His classmates told him how they felt his behavior affected them.

•Portillo said the class would take a vote. While Alex stood in front of the class, Portillo asked each student if he should stay.

•She marked the votes with tally marks on a whiteboard.

•Alex lost the vote 14-to-2 and spent the rest of the day in the school nurse's office.

•Alex was in the process of being diagnosed with a type of high-functioning autism at the time.


In June, Alex Barton's mother, Melissa Barton, filed a notice of intent to file a civil lawsuit, claiming discrimination and that her son's civil rights were violated.


Alex Barton

Since leaving school May 21, 2008, with his mother, Alex, now 6, hasn't been enrolled full-time in a school.

He gets services at home from a school district teacher, said his mother, Melissa Barton.

He also gets counseling from a private doctor to help him deal with what happened, she said, and he keeps in touch with one friend from his previous classroom.

In March, St. Lucie County Schools Exceptional Student Education Director Bill Tomlinson testified that a team of educators determined Alex should be in a general education classroom 100 percent of the time, with some support from teacher's aides or other help.

Melissa Barton said that hasn't happened yet. Returning to Morningside is not an option for Alex, she said.

Wendy Portillo

Wendy Portillo was reassigned to the district offices after the classroom vote.

In November, the School Board voted to accept Schools Superintendent Michael Lannon's recommendation to suspend her without pay for one year and to take away her tenure.

Portillo appealed.

In March, an administrative law judge heard testimony from both sides and upheld Lannon's recommendation.

Portillo's lawyer, David Walker of Stuart, was not available for comment.