Teacher Tenure Under Attack From Mother of Autistic Kid Voted Out of Class Survivor-Style
Alex Barton, circa 2008.
"I am going to war on teacher's tenure," says Melissa Barton, "and I will win. I'm going to eliminate it this year. By this time next year, tenure won't be a word in the teacher union's vocabulary."
Yep, Barton is pissed. In 2008, her 5-year-old son, Alex, was voted out of his kindergarten class, Survivor-style, for misbehaving.
Before the boy was sent to the office, his classmates were each given a chance to explain why they didn't like him. That the boy's misbehavior was due to autism didn't factor into the judgments of the teacher,
Wendy Portillo -- who, after Alex's parents complained, was suspended from teaching for a year. (She received full pay during her absence.)
Two years later, life has returned to normalish for all involved. Alex is an 8-year-old honor student who only suffers a little from the PTSD with which he was diagnosed after being voted out of his own class.
Portillo is teaching again, allegedly abusing a whole new class of differently abled kids. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights says Portillo and two other teachers discriminated against a girl with a hearing impairment.
And Barton says she's close to settling with the St. Lucie County School Board, which she has sued. Pending the approval of Alex's guardian ad litem, the Bartons are set to receive $350,000 -- most of which will be set aside for their children's future. Then, with the litigation over, Barton will use her new free time to punish teachers like Portillo, mercilessly.
"Wendy Portillo's attorney admitted that the district paid her legal fees," says Barton, reached over the phone as she wrangled all three of her kids (aged 1, 8, and 12) into her car after school. "That's $200,000 in legal fees. So here's your punishment for the systematic abuse of children, Wendy Portillo: a year of paid leave, and we pay your legal fees."
After returning to the classroom in Port St. Lucie Portillo once again became a figure of controversy for abusing a little girl with a hearing disability, according to the Department of Education findings. Portillo and two other teachers refused to use a microphone so that their voices could be amplified by the girl's hearing aid. Rather than use the microphone, Portillo and the other teachers would scream at the girl to "pay attention" and even make fun of her deafness -- with the microphone off.
"Why does this happen?" asks Barton. "How could a teacher -- a teacher on probation after violating the rights of a little boy -- behave in this way and not lose her job? It's the union. And it's tenure."
To back up her claim, Barton rattles off a long chain of abuses she claims have been suffered by children across the country at the hands of unaccountable teachers. Perhaps the most shocking incident involved a 300-pound Texan teacher who sat on an autistic child until he died. Though the incident was ruled a homicide, the man, who has since moved to Virginia, still teaches.
"The kid was a foster child his whole life," Barton says. "Eventually he found a good mom -- that was the mom he had when he was murdered. She's fought so hard to eliminate restraint and seclusion -- I would never want to be that mother. That my child could be murdered in a public school -- and the murderer would be free to walk around! To teach! It's incredible."
In the near-term, Barton's goal is to lobby local politicians. Then she will go to Tallahassee, where she says she will make sure everyone in the Capitol knows her name and what happened to her son. "They're all going to hear from me," she says.
As Barton explains it, the danger of tenure is purely economics. If a teacher is going to remain on a payroll regardless of their being fired, it would be fiscally irresponsible to fire a tenured teacher for any infraction that is less than actionable. And how does one judge what is actionable and what isn't? The alleged abuse of a deafh girl? An ill-advised disciplinary measure for an autistic boy? The only reliable method is to wait until an incident takes place and becomes public. "And by then it's too late," says Barton. The school board will rush to save face, the union will rush to defend its own, and the hands of individual principals and superintendents are tied.
Barton -- who makes a living selling advertising for a publication in Palm Beach County-- has now placed her children in private schools. The difference between public and private education, she says, is profound. "There are great public school teachers out there, obviously -- and they deserve all of our support for doing a tough, important job. But in public education, there's just no way to easily get rid of the bad ones... Parents, not unions, need to run our public schools. When you send a child to a public school in our state, you're sending them into oblivion."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.