At 12:38 pm on Friday, October 4th, surveillance footage shows 14-year old Avonte Oquendo running out of The Riverview School in Long Island City, Queens. Avonte is autistic and nonverbal. What haunts me about this footage is that no one stopped him from leaving. One second we see Avonte running out of the school building and then the next second we see him running down the block.
News reports indicate that Avonte had a one-to-one paraprofessional assigned to him at school. This part of the story blew me away. I know how hard it is for special education students to get one-to-one supervision in New York City. Parents have to fight for it…every time. I know because I have been there.
This type of supervision is mostly needed for special education students who may have behavioral or safety challenges. Sometimes it is also needed for students who have a hard time paying attention in class. The latter was the reason why Angel had a one-to-one in preschool.
So where was Avonte’s one to one on October 4th? Why did he or she leave Avonte unattended? Why was Avonte allowed to run out of the school building? Why didn’t the security guard stop him from leaving? Why did it take the school one hour to notify Avonte’s family that he was missing?
Let’s face it, The Riverview School failed Avonte. The New York City’s Department of Education also failed Avonte. Their negligence led to a young boy wandering off school property. Their negligence has led to a young boy being missing for over a week.
Many have criticized Avonte’s parents for taking the first step toward filing a law suit against the NYC Department of Education by filing a claim. I agree with them.The Department of Education should be held liable. What precedent does this set if schools are not held accountable when a child wanders and goes missing or is harmed on their watch? Contrary to what critics have said, the filing of this claim in no way diminishes the intense efforts that Avonte’s family have put into finding him.
Wandering is a real and scary reality in the autism community. According to the National Autism Association’s Awaare Collaboration Initiative, nearly half of the people with autism wander. They also define wandering as “… the tendency for an individual to try to leave the safety of a responsible person’s care or a safe area, which can result in potential harm or injury.”
Avonte’s disappearance has hit home for many special-needs parents like me. We spent the last week sharing Avonte’s flyer on social media and in our neighborhoods. We have also spent the last week researching devices and items that we can get to keep our children safe. During my research, I learned that there are no companies with tracking devices that service New York City. We are left with shoe tags and dog tags or items we can put on our children with our contact information.
After some discussion with fellow parents on Facebook, I started this petition to ask the NYPD to bring Project Lifesaver to New York City. This program provides a tracking device that can reduce the search time for people with the tendency to wander. This includes those with autism.
As we share and put up flyers, we are also demanding that the mainstream media increase their coverage of this story. We need more eyes and ears to know about Avonte to increase the chances of his safe return. All missing people regardless of skin color deserve to be reported on in the media. I implore all news organizations to bring nationwide coverage to this story. I also applaud those who are reporting on this story.
Please visit the AWAARE Web site to learn more about wandering and autism. If you have any information about Avonte, please call the NYPD Crime Stoppers at 800-577-TIPS. Autism Speaks and several reward partners are offering a reward that is now more than $70,000 to anyone providing information that leads to Avonte’s safe return.
What strategies do you use to keep your child with autism safe?