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Kindergarten Cruelty: Not Child's Play

When did kindergarten teachers get so mean?

In Port Lucie, Florida, Wendy Portillo told kindergarteners to tell five-year-old Alex Barton why they didn’t want him in class. After telling him that he is “disgusting” and “annoying,” the children voted on whether he could remain in class. Alex’s best friend, who’d wanted to keep him, changed his vote when the teacher pressured him. Alex was voted out 14-2.


Alex’s sin that day was lying under a table and kicking it. He also was known for throwing and eating crayons, eating boogers, eating paper and chewing on shoelaces.

The teacher knew Alex was about to receive an autism diagnosis. She’d attended meetings to develop an Individual Education Plan to help Alex function in the classroom. She should have realized that children on the autism spectrum have trouble picking up non-verbal signals, interacting with others and handling the stimuli of a noisy classroom. But she got the class to reject him — just for the day, she says — in the hope that public humiliation would be good for him.

I envision a teacher getting the class to tell a slow learner that’s he’s stupid, so he’ll become smarter.

Another case of kindergarten cruelty was revealed days later. Parents of Gabriel Ross, a five-year-old boy in New Albany, Indiana, revealed their audiotape of the boy’s teacher, Kristen Woodward, screaming at him. He’d complained all year the teacher was “mean.” The tape caught Woodward saying, “I’ve been more than nice to you all year long and you’ve been ignorant, selfish, self-absorbed, the whole thing! I’m done!” She continues: “Something needs to be done because you are pathetic! If me saying these words to you hurt, I hope it does because you’re hurting everyone else around you.”

Gabriel can be heard crying on the tape.


The teacher hauled him in front of the class and encouraged his fellow kindergarteners to reject Gabriel. “So you guys think, is that somebody you want to be with?” Woodward asks the class. In unison, the other students reply, “Noooo.”

She told the boy, “See, your friend doesn’t want to be with you. I don’t know what else to tell you. So you’re not going to have friends because of your actions.”

Gabriel is a normal kid who’s “no angel” at home but isn’t out of control either, say his parents. It’s not clear why he drove his teacher nuts, but two weeks into the school year Woodward told his parents he needed a “behavior plan.” They say she told them later she was too busy to talk about it.

Both of these are experienced teachers. Both apparently think they did nothing wrong. Portillo says she thought Alex would pay attention to his classmates if they told him how much he was bothering them. Woodward says she had a bad day (which just happened to be the day she was being recorded).

Kindergarten teachers who can’t keep their cool with difficult five-year-old boys should find another line of work. Maybe these are just isolated incidents, two mean teachers in a sea of nice ones. But there may be something else going on here.

In talking to teachers and reading the dozens of comments on my blog posts here and here, I see a pattern.

Teachers complain that more wild and crazy children are coming to school, and that there’s little that teachers are allowed to do to enforce discipline when parents are uncooperative or incompetent. Of course, you’d think Gabriel’s teacher could have scheduled at least one meeting with the parents to discuss that behavior plan.


Teachers also say they’re promised training in dealing with children with disabilities or behavior problems, but they never get it. Or they get it, and it’s not helpful. They’re told special education teachers will co-teach or that aides will work with high-need children, but the extra help never appears or vanishes with the next budget cut.

Across the country, special ed teachers are in short supply, so districts assign low-seniority teachers — those with the least training and experience — to work with the neediest children.

This doesn’t serve children with special needs like Alex. It doesn’t serve their classmates, who’d prefer not to have their tables kicked when they’re trying to color.

Morningside Elementary in Florida has a school police officer, who investigated the voting incident for evidence of criminal abuse. Go here to read the report. The officer knew Alex well — he was sent to the office frequently — and had no trouble getting him to cooperate. He certainly showed more patience with this little boy than his teacher. Why didn’t the school have a special education teacher or aide who could have worked with Alex in the classroom? An elementary school has a cop but doesn’t have an aide?

Mainstreaming can work. Recently, I visited two elementary schools that make integrating disabled children part of their core mission. Teachers get effective training and support from well-trained aides; they communicate frequently with parents.


At both schools, children with autism or similar issues are encouraged to leave the classroom before they lose control. Sometimes an aide comes along; sometimes the child is old enough to go solo. They jump on a trampoline, run around the building or lift heavy objects in the gym until they’ve calmed down. Then they go quietly back to class.

Alex and Gabriel don’t have to be outcasts.

Sadly, both boys are too scared to return to their neighborhood schools.

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