Monday, February 16, 2009

FL: Help teachers, help students

Palm Beach Post Editorial
Saturday, February 14, 2009

At this point, everybody agrees that Alex Barton never should have been voted out of his kindergarten class at Morningside Elementary in Port St. Lucie. Even Wendy Portillo, the teacher who imposed that bizarre punishment, agrees that she was out of line: "If I could take that morning back, I would."

Ms. Portillo herself is out of the classroom now. She has appealed the yearlong suspension imposed by the St. Lucie County School Board on the recommendation of Superintendent Michael Lannon. Though the suspension is appropriate, students such as Alex pose problems for teachers, and districts don't always provide the level of training and support teachers need.

The Palm Beach County School District also has been confronting its shortcomings - though not strictly voluntarily. The school board last week settled a lawsuit that will change how the district teaches and disciplines special education students. Ms. Portillo's mishandling of Alex Barton, and the resulting controversy, can help the public to better understand what teachers face.

When he came to the class, Alex had not been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. That process stretched out over months. The teacher's options for dealing with constant disruption were limited. She could take away tokens, or she could send him out of the room.

Tellingly, on the day Ms. Portillo made her cruel mistake, the volunteer and alternate teacher who often looked after Alex when he was sent out of the classroom were not available. The principal's office, to which Alex was sent, returned him to the classroom after a short time. More effective support might have saved Ms. Portillo from her mistake.

To help teachers, a spokesperson for the St. Lucie School District said, "We have offered an array of training over the years and continue to make that training available." The district is dealing with "exponential growth in children identified with the autism spectrum. Based on the sensitivity associated with this issue this school year, we have offered (training) for all teachers on Autism Spectrum Disorder." She said that the district also is working closely with the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at FAU.

Palm Beach County has not had an episode that caused public outrage on the scale of the Portillo/Barton case. But parents and groups that advocate for special-education students sued the district for using harmful discipline techniques that unnecessarily took students out of regular classes and programs.

The settlement requires the district to spend up to $100,000 for a consultant to develop a better system. The scope is striking. The settlement says that training "shall include all principals, assistant principals, teachers (general and special education), student support services staff, paraprofessionals, disciplinarians, other school administrators, and other educational service providers working at all schools in the district and shall also include school resource officers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers."

Schools are struggling to keep special education students in regular classrooms - which should be the goal - without disrupting the education of other students. Without proper training, the result can be kindergartners being shunned by classmates. New and continuing training for staff will make life better for everyone in the classroom.

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