New TQB feature: What does it take to fire a teacher?

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Portillo v. St. Lucie County, Florida

This month, TQB begins a new feature in which we keep track, over a period of as many months as it takes to achieve a final resolution, of what happens to a teacher accused of misconduct or incompetence. For the record, we also would like to run a similar feature tracking what happens to an unfairly maligned teacher. (Send us a clip on a teacher ( and we'll look into it.)

Our first case comes from the St. Lucie County schools in Florida.

In May 2008, kindergarten teacher Wendy Portillo sent a problem student, Alex Barton, to the assistant principal's office. Portillo, a 12-year veteran, had been having a lot of trouble with the child, who frequently acted out, kicking furniture and eating and throwing crayons. While Alex was out of the room, Portillo gathered her students together and invited them to identify the things they did not like about their classmate. She then took a vote as to whether Alex should be allowed to stay in their class.

Sound like "Survivor"? Of course the kindergarteners voted him out, and when little Alex returned to the classroom, Portillo showed him the results. Traumatized, the child is now being homeschooled by a retired teacher and has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism that limits a student's social skills.

Portillo refers to the incident as a "lapse of judgment." The school district saw it as something more than that, suspending her without pay for one year and abolishing her tenure.

Even though some might see Portillo as lucky for escaping the permanent ax, she appealed the punishment. At a hearing before an administrative judge this month, Portillo testified that she viewed the classroom "voting" against Barton as a "learning opportunity" because she tallied each child's vote on the board and asked the students to count the tally marks.

The judge is expected to issue a decision in early April. We'll cover that decision and any appeals when they happen.