Avonte Oquendo’s Funeral Draws 200 Mourners

avonteMourners gathered in New York on January 25 for the public funeral service for Avonte Oquendo. The 14-year-old autistic boy’s remains were found in Queen’s by the East River this month. He’d been missing since October 2013.

The search for Avonte has been long and intensive, involving 50 members of the NYPD at one point and a detective task force, sewer sweeps conducted by the Department of Environmental Protection, daily checks every subway station in New York by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the efforts of total strangers who just wanted to help search. Read more here 

Something about the story moved them. Likely it was the idea of an autistic boy being out on his own in a city in which a more “average” fourteen-year-old would have been very vulnerable, and one with disabilities particularly so. Estimates of Avonte’s level of functioning, for what they’re worth, put him at the level of 8 or 9 years old, and he didn’t communicate using spoken language. You would like to think that someone who came across him would take him to a police station or hospital immediately, but we don’t live in that perfect world, do we?

But if the Riverview School (also known as Center Boulevard School), a school for young people with disabilities, had been more on the ball, he wouldn’t have been out there the begin with. I started my research for this blog entry with this CNN article, and had so many “They let what happen?” moments, based on my experience in special education that I wrote nearly 1000 words based on the couple of paragraphs about the school in that article alone. But when I accidentally closed a browser window and had to go searching for an article again, I found a much more detailed accounting of the school’s actions in response to Avonte’s disappearance, with details from the Department of Education’s report into the incident.

It was much worse than I thought.

The Department of Education Report

Here’s the timeline on Avonte’s disappearance on October 4:

  • Avonte slipped away from in class while they were walking to the computer lab. The article doesn’t say how large the class was, but three adults were supervising.
  • Security cameras show that Avonte reached the first floor of the building at 12:37. He walked past the security desk twice and left through a door that had been left ajar. Four minutes later, the school safety officer shut the door.
  • At 12:41, Avonte’s teachers noticed he was missing (according to CNN, it took them “several minutes” to notice that he was gone), but they didn’t notify the assistant principal until  12:56.
  • The assistant-principal asked the safety officer  to do a perimeter search of the school. The safety officer said that she did not see Avonte leave, and that she’d seen him “run up the stairs”.
  • The assistant-principal asked for a soft lockdown of the school, but was denied, as the principal believed it would be too much of a disturbance to another students.
  • Almost an hour after Avonte disappeared, the police were called.
  • At 2 pm the school was put into full lockdown.
  • At approximately 2:45 the administrators finally got access to the cameras. They didn’t have the passwords before then.

Read more here

There’s not much to say here about what went wrong and what needs to be done, but I will say a couple of things.

  • Riverview School knew that Avonte had a tendency to wander. Knowing that, staff should have locked the outside doors, had people searching the grounds, and put a “heads up” call in to the police the moment that teachers realized that Avonte was missing.
  • If the safety guard was the one that worked the main security desk every day, she should have known what students would usually be in area alone. Even if she didn’t know Avonte that might wander if unsupervised, seeing him walk past the desk twice should have made her wonder if something was off, and want to investigate further.
  • That door shouldn’t have been ajar. Not only can students get out, you can’t predict who will come in – unacceptable in any school right now.

What else can be said about this? We send our children to school each day putting faith in the staff, the Board, and their policies and procedures to keep them safe. The education system must be very vigilant about its policies and procedures, its staff training, and its level of responsiveness, to make sure that it’s up to the challenge, particularly when students who are especially vulnerable due to any reason are involved.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that the staff at Riverview School didn’t care about Avonte Oquendo. But clearly there are issues that need to be addressed, perhaps across the entire Board, considering that a 4-year-old Brooklyn boy left his school alone on January 24 and walked home without a coat on. He’s fine, but parents are pulling him from the school. Read more here

Avonte’s Law

All of this has given Senator Chuck Schumer an idea, and he’ll be proposing the legislation on January 27th. He’d like the federal government to provide $10 000 000 toward a tracking device that autistic children could wear on a wrist or carry in a wallet, or have sewn into their clothing. He’s calling it “Avonte’s Law”.

I’m not sure what I think about this. Right or wrong, putting tracking devices on kids makes me think of getting tracking devices implanted on dogs. And now that the 4-year-old in Brooklyn has shown that he might go for a walk if given a chance, do you think that someone will suggest that he carry a tracking device? What about if he was autistic?

Well, I do know what I think of some of it. For federal legislation, $10 000 000 isn’t a lot of money. Is this supposed to cover a device for every family in America who wants it? Even for that, this just seems like, “We should do something, so let’s toss a small amount of money at it” money.

If they were really concerned, they’d put some real money into this  and put it some supports into place for autistic children – support for families, training for school staff, upgrading for buildings, more money in special education budgets for programming… maybe even education for parents and professionals by autism experts about wandering, to deal with the issue at its roots and give people tools that they can use.

But I’m not the mother of an autistic child. Putting myself in that place, as best as I can…imagining the prospect of searching for my child for months, only to have the police find pieces of him…I imagine that I’d be saying, “Give me the device, now. I want to know where my child is at all times.”

If it could keep a tragedy from happening, how could I not take it?

No easy answer. Just a boy that won’t be coming home to his family. Rest in peace, Avonte.

About Sarah

Due to a stroke, I've walked with a cane since I was 22 (I'm 36 now)...but I'm so much more than just the girl with the cane.
  • Donna Thomson

    Hi Sarah, This is a terrible, tragic story. I am so sorry for Avonte’s family – knowing his death was so senseless and preventable must make it much more difficult. I am a mother of a very vulnerable young man. My son has severe CP, not autism, and it would be impossible for him to wander. But I have spent the last 25 racking my brain for ways I could keep my boy safe from whatever dangers lurked on any given day. So, I think as the loving parent of a son or daughter with autism who was prone to wandering, I would want a device that could track movements and show the whereabouts of my loved one. I would want the software available on my personal computer, but shared with the police as well (used with them if necessary and I made the call). The same device could be life-saving for children or loved ones of people with severe Alzheimer’s as well. I think the ethical dilemma is with the issue of surveillance and personal freedom. But if Avonte had had access to such a device, he would be safely back at school today. Surely such a device can be made for a lot less than $10,000- this is a problem that calls for creative crowd sourcing, maybe the fantastic social problem solving hi-tech event call PopTech.

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