Florida teacher lets students vote to remove child from class

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Location of Port St. Lucie within Lucie County and the state of Florida.

A kindergarten teacher in Port St. Lucie, Florida, United States is being reassigned following an incident last week in which her students voted to remove a possibly autistic child from the classroom.

According to school officials, Morningside Elementary School teacher Wendy Portillo held a vote in her kindergarten classroom concerning the removal of 5-year-old Alex Barton. The boy's mother, Melissa Barton, says her son is in the process of testing for Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism which can impair social skills and behavior. She says that Alex has had disciplinary problems stemming from his condition.

Alex's mother gave her account of the events. She said each of his classmates was allowed to say what they didn't like about him; this included comments such as "disgusting" and "annoying", Barton said. After that, the teacher held a vote in which the class voted out Alex by a margin of 14 to 2. "He was incredibly upset," she said. "The only friend he has ever made in his life was forced to do this." Barton says that after the vote, the teacher asked Alex how he felt, to which he replied, "I feel sad."

The only friend he has ever made in his life was forced to do this.

—Melissa Barton, Alex's mother

Alex then left the classroom and spent the rest of the day in the school nurse's office, his mother says. The nurse reportedly told Barton to talk with the child's teacher, who told the mother what had happened. Barton says her son will not be returning to Morningside Elementary anymore. "I'll never be able to send him to school again without worrying if something is going to happen," she said.

Barton says she is considering whether to file a lawsuit. The state attorney's office decided that no criminal charges would be filed, since the incident did not meet the criteria for emotional child abuse. But the school district is investigating Portillo's actions, says St. Lucie County School District spokeswoman Janice Karst, and it could be up to two weeks before a conclusion is reached.

After being contacted by Barton, the school's resource officer interviewed Portillo about the incident. According to police spokeswoman Michelle Steele, the teacher said Alex had been sent to the office earlier that day, and when he came back to class, Portillo asked the students if they were ready for him to return. She allegedly had told her class that the vote was part of a lesson on tallying.

Portillo, who has taught in St. Lucie County for 12 years, has been reassigned out of the classroom at the district offices for the time being. Alex's mother believes that Portillo has "no business being near children at all" and should be fired, calling her reassignment "just a slap in the face".

The school board has advised Portillo not to speak with the press.