November 18th, 2008 by Cara Fitzpatrick
FORT PIERCE, Florida — A St. Lucie County teacher who sparked a national controversy for instructing her students to vote on whether an autistic boy should remain in his kindergarten class was placed on unpaid leave Tuesday.
The St. Lucie County School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to accept the recommendation of Superintendent Michael Lannon to place Wendy Portillo on unpaid leave and to remand the issue to the state Division of Administrative Hearings.
In a letter to Portillo sent earlier this month, Lannon said her actions caused “worldwide outrage and condemnation.”
“Causing 5- and 6-year-old peers to pass judgment on one of their own, to state the reasons for their ‘vote’ and then to act on the outcome is a true failure to apply professional judgment at best,” he wrote.
Lannon also said he would ask the state Department of Education to revoke Wendy Portillo’s teaching certificate during her suspension, said he would not allow her to teach pre-school or elementary-age students again and further recommended that she return to work on an annual contract after the suspension.
Those recommendations would be subject to the results of the DOAH hearing. Such a review could take another eight months; if Portillo wins at DOAH she would receive back pay.
Portillo, a veteran at Morningside Elementary in Port St. Lucie, set off a firestorm of controversy in late May when she asked her students to vote on whether Alex Barton should stay in class after misbehaving. The class voted 14-2 for him to leave.
The school district received hundreds of email and phone calls condemning her actions, and Alex Barton’s mother, Melissa Barton, removed her son from Morningside. Barton is pursuing a lawsuit against the school district.
Barton said she was not vindicated by Lannon’s recommendation, and her son still “carries the scars of what she did to him.”
“Obviously I want her fired,” she said.
Lannon said he considered firing Portillo, but ultimately decided against it after weighing both her unblemished 12-year record as a teacher in the school district and the nature of the incident, which district officials had concluded was not done with malicious intent.
“There’s no way to find a perfect solution,” he said.