Wednesday, February 4, 2009

FL: Teacher in the Alex Barton case testifies at hearing

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

FORT PIERCE — After about eight months following a decision she made to have her students vote on whether one of them should stay in class, Morningside Elementary kindergarten teacher Wendy Portillo broke her silence.

During her testimony before an administrative law judge Tuesday, Portillo outlined the events that took place May 21, 2008, from the time 5-year-old Alex Barton arrived at school without a backpack and homework folder until the class voted 14-to-2 for Alex to leave the room.

Portillo is appealing her one-year unpaid suspension she got in November for holding a class poll to see whether Alex could stay in class. Alex has since been diagnosed with having a type of autism.

In addition to the suspension, the St. Lucie School Board took away Portillo’s tenure and placed her on an annual contract.

Morningside Elementary Principal Marcia Cully testified Tuesday she would not rehire Portillo because she no longer has a rapport or trust with her. Schools Superintendent Michael Lannon said Monday he would not want her ever to teach elementary school again in St. Lucie, even if she gets her job back.

Portillo said she never intended to embarrass or hurt Alex.

“If I could take that morning back, I would,” she said.

Barton was sent to the office about 10:30 a.m. for pushing a table up with his feet and flicking crayons at other students. When he left, his classmates began talking about what they saw, Portillo testified Tuesday.

“I felt I needed to talk about what they had seen. I explained to them that people do stuff just to get attention. I was just telling them I was there for them,” Portillo said.

That’s when Alex walked back in the room, she said.

Other students started talking about things Alex did. Portillo told him to listen to what his peers said about him, she said.

“I said, ‘I’m not sure I’m ready for you now,’” she said. “I said, ‘Let’s take a poll.’ One of the students said, ‘What’s a poll?’ I said, ‘It’s like a vote.’”

Portillo made tally marks on the board in the front of the class, where Alex and Portillo stood. The class had been learning about keeping tallies, she said. Portillo said she didn’t think whether the vote was appropriate.

“It was just another learning opportunity. It was just another way for me to review that teaching,” she said.

The vote turned out to be 14 to 2, she said.

Alex left the classroom. Portillo didn’t see him the rest of the morning.

She said she now is sorry for what happened, and didn’t mean to embarrass the child and would do things differently if she could.

She said she would apologize again to Alex’s mother, Melissa Barton.

After the outcry over the vote, Portillo said she became a homebody.

“I felt that everyone was judging me. I couldn’t eat or drink,” she said. “It was not a good experience.”


• After a transcript of the hearing is written, both parties have 10 calendar days to file a proposed recommended order.

• Administrative law judge Claude Arrington, who heard the case, then deliberates. He said he usually takes about 20 days to deliver a finding of facts and recommendation of any punishment.

• The recommendation then goes to the St. Lucie County School Board, which makes the final decision. The board cannot deviate from the judge’s finding of facts, but can decide not to follow the judge’s recommendation if it can provide reason for doing so.

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