What do you say to a kid who’s rolling around, punching, biting, kicking? (the story of Gabriel Ross)

It seems Alex Barton is not the only five-year-old verbally abused by his teacher.

While Gabriel Ross has not been voted out of his classroom, he also heard his peers being forced to say they don’t want to be his friends, and he heard much worse things from his teacher .

I first found Gabriel’s story on MND–mensnewsdaily.com in a June 5, 2008 editorial “Kindergarten Cruelty: Not Child’s Play” by Joanne Jacobs.

It seems the story has been first reported on May 25, 2008 by News and Tribune in an article “Tape reveals teacher’s verbal abuse” by Tara Hettinger and was picked up by ABC News a couple days later. (see “Teacher Caught on Tape: Kindergartner ‘Ignorant, Pathetic, Self-Absorbed’” by Jonann Brady from May 27, 2008 and the interview posted on that page)

Gabriel’s story, which broke just about the same time as Alex Barton’s, had some additional coverage but very little in comparison with Alex’s story. I suppose that might be because Gabriel has not been identified as autistic or ADHD, so unlike Alex, he and his parents do not receive hundreds of letters of support from all over the world.

Gabriel’s parents don’t see any difficult behaviors at home, but at school things seem to have been a bit different. Yet even though his teacher, Kristen Woodward, suggested creating a behavioral plan for Gabriel early in the school year, apparently she chose to do nothing about that in the end. Instead, she chose to be mean to him and call him “stupid,” “pathetic” and “ignorant, selfish, self-absorbed, the whole thing.”

Ironically, on the tape, she’s the one chastising Gabriel about making poor choices.

I must say I’m glad to hear that Woodward has been suspended indefinitely. A person who calls little children “stupid” has no right to be a teacher.

Interestingly, the News and Tribune article also quotes Carol Mooney, who is with the Indiana State Teachers Association, as saying “the school administration’s actions were unfair” and asking “What do you say to a kid who’s rolling around, punching, biting, kicking?”

Well, one thing for sure – when a child is rolling around, punching, biting, kicking, you DO NOT call that child stupid, but try to find out what makes him behave like that!

It just happens that the same day I found out about this story, I read the following in Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice, edited by Lynn Meltzer, and published in 2007 by the Guilford Press.

It is critical for teachers, care providers, and parents to realize that people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) do not engage in inappropriate behaviors intentionally to be malicious or manipulative. (emphasis mine) [...] A common misconception is that they are capable of learning to behave differently but are just lazy or unmotivated. Students with ASDs and other neurodevelopmental disorders (such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.) [...] cannot learn different ways of behaving without interventions that are specifically geared to their learning strengths and styles. It is the responsibility of parents and educators working with these students to address their specific deficits and find effective methods for teaching and reinforcing more appropriate and adaptive behaviors. -”Executive Dysfunction in Autism Spectrum Disorders: From Research to Practice,” by Sally Ozonoff and Patricia L. Schetter, in Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice, edited by Lynn Meltzer.

Maybe instead of saying the salute to the flag each morning, the teachers should read this quote every day, as their mantra, and try to abide by it.

No Autistics Allowed? (the story of Alex Barton)

Everyone has already heard this unbelievable story – a teacher in a kindergarten classroom “led” her pupils “to vote […] out of class” a five-year-old being evaluated for Asperger Syndrome.

The first coverage of this story (or one of the first) appeared on TCPalm.com (May 23, 2008 “St. Lucie teacher has students vote on whether 5-year-old can stay in class” by Colleen Wixon).

As the newspaper reports “each classmate was allowed to say what they didn’t like about […] Alex” and “by a 14 to 2 margin, the class voted him out of the class.” Alex’s classmates said that he was “disgusting” and “annoying.” “The teacher then allegedly asked the boy where he would go now that the class doesn’t like him the boy replied, ‘to the office?’ the teacher returned with ‘they do not want you there’ then the 5 year old said ‘home’ the teacher said your mom is at work you can’t go home. He finally said that he would go to the nurse and the teacher sent him out of the classroom to the office where he stayed for the remainder of the day.” (treasurecoast.com, Friday, May 23 “Austistic 5 year old allegedly physically, mentally abused by Port St. Lucie School Teacher”)

Melissa Barton, Alex’s mom was interviewed by CBS and the “raw video” of this thirteen-minute interview is available online.

Wendy Portillo, Alex’s Teacher, has been “reassigned” to another position while the school board is investigating the incident to decide what to do next. She has not commented on the incident to the media, per the advice or order of the school officials, as I understand.

TCPalm.com has a page with links to all articles on their site covering this story, including editorials, some in defense of Wendy Portillo.

The May 29, 2008 article “Police report reveals teacher’s side of incident in which boy ‘voted’ out of Port St. Lucie class”, by Coleen Wixon has a link to a pdf file of the narrative portion of the police incident report which so far is the only place where one can read Wendy Portillo’s side of the story.

What surprised me from this report is that she filled out a discipline referral for Alex for “pushing up the table with his feet.” His classmates’ work was sliding off the table as a result, and for that he was sent to the principal’s office.

I am also floored by Portillo’s statements in her testimony that “the students in class were all her priority and she would protect them like ‘a bear defending her cubs’” that “she would not let them hurt anyone and she would not let anyone hurt them.” It is quite obvious she did not consider Alex as one of the cubs. I bet Alex will remember for the rest of his life the way she hurt him and humiliated him in front of his classmates. (Just as I still remember my second grade math teacher hitting me and my classmates on the palm with a ruler, or my first grade PE teacher calling me antisocial in front of the whole class, and that was a really long time ago.)

Portillo also claimed “she felt if [Alex] heard from his classmates how his behavior affected them that it would make a bigger difference to him, rather than just hearing it from adults.” That’s why she “polled the class to see how [Alex’s] peers felt about his return.” And that comes from a teacher who supposedly is trained and certified to teach special needs children.

I don’t know who trained Wendy Portillo in teaching special needs children and what special needs were covered in her training but she sure doesn’t know squat about autism.

I am shocked that discrimination like this comes from a person who is a minority and I’m pretty sure has been discriminated against herself and should know what it feels like to be criticized for just being who you are and for something you have no control over.

Alex’s classmates telling him what they don’t like about his behavior will not change his behavior because he has no control over it, just as she has no control over the color of her skin. How would she feel like if her peers told her they don’t want her as part of the teaching faculty because of her race? I’m sure she’d be outraged, as she well should be. Luckily, even though there’s still plenty of “below the surface” racial discrimination in this country (which people feel very uncomfortable talking or writing about) such open racial discrimination is illegal in the U.S.

Unfortunately, it seems there’s still a long way to go to combat the legal discrimination on the basis of a neuropsychological disability. I’m sure it would not even occur to Portillo (or at least she would not dare) to put a minority child or a child in a wheelchair or an overweight one through a “vote” like this.

I also could not believe some of the comments left by readers in response to the news reports about Alex. And as much as I’d like to think that the comments against Alex and supporting Portillo and the exclusion of children on IEPs from regular classrooms were written by “trolls” – people who post inflammatory remarks just to stir up people and make them angry – I’m afraid that a lot of those comments truly are what people who wrote them think and believe and that’s what they teach their children.

One of Alex’s classmates, Jessica Moore, cried when Mrs. Portillo was removed from the classroom. She was among those who voted Alex out of the classroom and sees the incident as a “non-event.” Her father, Terrence Moore, of course doesn’t see anything wrong with that picture and calls Portillo a “very caring teacher.” (TCPalm.com, May 29, 2008 “Police report reveals teacher’s side of incident in which boy ‘voted’ out of Port St. Lucie class”)

I am terrified to think whether any of parents of my son’s classmates would want him removed from the classroom. Some of the behaviors that made Alex’s peers vote against him were humming or eating paper. My son doesn’t hum or eat odd things anymore, at least not in school, but he used to. He stopped doing that because he received a lot of accommodations and behavioral interventions at his integrated preschool. If he had a teacher like Wendy Portillo, I’m sure he’d be voted out sooner or later as well.

Everyone who has or worked with an autistic child knows that even with the high functioning kids the symptoms are quite noticeable right away. I’m floored by the fact that Alex has been in school since September and for the past nine months the school has done nothing to help him when it is widely documented that for autistic children intervention and support at this age is crucial and can make a lot of positive difference in the future.

There has been tremendous coverage of Alex’s story on blogosphere. I especially like the post “Wendy Portillo’s Psychological Mob Lynching of a 5 Year Old” on Thinking in Metaphors (I like too many parts of this post to quote it, I’d have to quote the whole thing)

and “Alex Barton” on Life with Joey where the author writes

“Not only was Alex Barton emotionally abused, but so was his entire class. […]This was an assault on an entire classroom of children, with Alex Barton as the focus.” (the entry also includes links to other blogs discussing Alex’s story)

Another blogger on MOM – Not Otherwise Specified (I love the title!) makes a very good point for inclusive education in her post “The tribe has spoken”

“In the midst of a difficult, troubling year, Alex Barton’s teacher called his village together and rallied them against him. Bud {the blogger’s son} also had a difficult, troubling year and, interestingly, his teacher also called his village together for a tribal meeting. Unlike Alex, Bud was not there for the meeting. And the agenda for Bud’s tribe’s meeting was distinctly different: one of the special ed team members came in to talk to Bud’s class and help them understand Bud a little better – help them understand the things that are difficult for him, the things that are easy for him, and the things they could do to support him through the challenging times. Like Alex’s village, Bud’s village came together. But Bud was embraced instead of exiled.”

And finally, I found very interesting the entry “Why I am closing the comments on two posts” on Asperger Square 8, where the author writes

“Around the web, you can find comments stating that she did the right thing, that children must be made to behave through any means available. You will also find people saying she should be harmed emotionally and/or physically for her crime. I’ve heard that she is undeserving of life. This is not acceptable to me. […] I know that if my worst moments were shown to the world, were discussed on numerous sites, some with nearly a thousand comments now, I would not want to continue living. Yet I believe in redemption (not in a passive sense, but through hard work toward change) and I hope that others, including Portillo, do too.
When people start coming to my blog and talking about revenge and sending people to hell, it is time to take a break. […] For the sake of the other Alexes, those whose names are not in the spotlight, it is time to turn our attention toward the larger societal problems, those which allow bullying to occur, not just in one school in Florida, but throughout this nation.”

I agree – even though I’m afraid the war on discrimination will never be won completely, we cannot stop trying. That’s why I’m planning to request putting in my son’s IEP “educating the school staff about autism and ADHD and the types of accommodations and interventions required” – a suggestion I picked from A Parent’s Guide to Special Education: Insider Advice on How to Navigate the System and Help Your Child Succeed, by Linda Wilmhurst and Alan W. Brue, published by AMACOM in 2005.

Gifted Education – Federal level

Even though the United States has a federal definition of gifted students, there is no federal-level mandate to identify gifted students and place them in gifted programs. As a result each state has its own rules about gifted education.

Despite no mandate, in 2008 there are federal funds for gifted programs through the Javits Grant, “available to institutions of higher education (IHEs), local education agencies (LEAs), nonprofit organizations, other organizations and/or agencies, and state education agencies (SEAs).”

As the Javits Grant web site states “The purpose of this program is to carry out a coordinated program of scientifically based research, demonstration projects, innovative strategies, and similar activities designed to build and enhance the ability of elementary and secondary schools to meet the special education needs of gifted and talented students. The major emphasis of the program is on serving students traditionally underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, particularly economically disadvantaged, limited English proficient (LEP), and disabled students, to help reduce the serious gap in achievement among certain groups of students at the highest levels of achievement.”

The National Association for Gifted Children is rallying the gifted community to contact their state representatives and senators to support funding for the 2009 Javits program because, “as he did seven times before, President [Bush] has requested $0 for the Javits program in his Budget Request to the Congress.” NAGC also has a web site showing which representatives and senators have already co-signed the letters requesting $11.25 Million for the Javits Program in fiscal year 2009.

By the way, no Javits grant competition was held in 2007 and 2006 due to lack of funds.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Education received 140 applications for the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program and funded 14 Priority Two grants totaling approximately $3.5 million.

In 2004, due to limited funding in 2004, no Javits grant competition was held and the funding was distributed among high quality proposals that were submitted in 2003 http://www.ed.gov/programs/javits/fy2004abstracts.doc.

And in 2003, the Department received 105 applications for the Javits competition and funded two Priority One and five Priority Two awards totaling $8.17 million.

Most of the grants were awarded either to state departments of education or universities and colleges that train teachers to specialize in gifted education. Very few school districts received federal funding.

I was a bit jealous to find that the GATE program at the Davis Joint Unified School District in California – one of the school districts that received federal grants –offers self-contained classes for gifted children. (The program’s site includes the district’s restructured standards specifically for the GATE program.)

I also liked the Gifted Programs page of the Page Unified School District in Page, Arizona, which offers “enriched curriculum with the flexible grouping of students […] to facilitate differentiated instruction.”

From among the districts that received federal funds, the closest one to where we live – the Nashua, NH School District – does not seem to have a link straight from their home page to their “REACH: Recognizing Extraordinary Abilities in Children” program site.

According to another page I found through the search engine, in 2007-2008 school year 618 students participated in the REACH program and the district is planning to allocate $335,099 to REACH in 2008-2009 FY. (see page 4 of the document).

I could not find much detailed information about the program on the REACH site. It seems students identified as gifted “have their needs met through accommodations proscribed within individual action plans (IAPs)”, which sounds very much like the Individual Education Plans (IEPs) used in Special Education. But it’s not clear from the information posted whether the program is self-contained, or offers pull-out, or simply provides differentiates instruction within a heterogenic classroom.

Either way, it’s not our district, so our son cannot attend that program.

Shopping for an ADHD diagnosis?

One of the members of the ADD Forums discussion board recently claimed she knows a family who got a diagnosis of ADHD for their child to be able to enroll that child in a gifted program (see posts #42 and #52 of the thread “Re: Unwrapping the Gift of ADD” Program).

I find it hard to believe that there really are people who would do that. I have never met a parent who wanted their child to be diagnosd with ADHD.