2015-06-10 / Front Page

Schools Installing 21,000 Door Alarms Under ‘Avonte’s Law’

By Liz Goff
City school officials are installing 21,000 audible door alarms at public schools to prevent another tragedy like the 2013 disappearance and death of Avonte Oquendo, 14, who bolted out a side door at the Riverview School in Long Island City – and was never seen alive again.

The teen’s remains were found in January 2014, along a rocky shoreline at Powell’s Cove in College Point, Queens. The city Medical Examiner has since said that no determination of cause can be made in Avonte’s death.

The alarms will be in place by the end of 2015, deputy schools chancellor Elizabeth Rose said.

School employees will also be trained in managing students during transitional periods between classes, when there is a risk they may try to slip out of school unnoticed, Rose said.

A report released by city investigators months after Avonte disappeared said a series of foul-ups and mishandlings led to the death of the autistic teen whose disappearance sparked one of the largest search efforts in New York City history.

The damning report by the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City school system said Avonte’s teacher, Julie Murray, sent home a form to his mother, Vanessa Fontaine, in September 2013, on which she could provide information about Avonte, along with special instructions on the care of the autistic teen.

Under a section on the form marked, “Safety Concerns,” Fonaine wrote, “Please make sure you keep an eye out because (Avonte) likes to run. Need one-on-one supervision,” Fontaine wrote. “Will leave the building.”

The report sais Murray shared the information with paraprofessionals who sometimes worked with her students, but not with the assistants who were escorting Avonte’s class from a cafeteria on the day of his disappearance. Ms. Murray also failed to alert the school principal and administrators of the safety concerns listed by his mother – contrary to school rules, the report stated.

According to the report, a notation on Avonte’s individual education program alerted school officials that he was a “runner.” A note on the document reads, “(Avonte) does get excited at times and will run off.”

“The teacher knew my son would run off,” Fontaine said at a 2014 press conference at her attorney’s midtown office. “She disregarded it. She didn’t tell anyone,” Fontaine said. “Everyone was supposed to look out for my child.”

The 12-page report provided a detailed chronology of the details leading to Avonte’s escape from the school, described as acts of negligence that led to his death.

  • NYPD School Safety Agent Bernadette Perez told investigators she was covering the desk in the front lobby of the school when Avonte raced past her unattended on October 4 2013, the report stated. Perez said she did not know Avonte, she did not know he was unable to communicate, and she did not know which of the building’s three schools he attendeed.

Perez said she was busy with parents when Avonte darted past her, so she called out to him, “Excuse me,” twice to his, he did not answer. Perez told investigators she could not run after Avonte because she was alone at the lobby desk and could not leave her post.

  • The report also said that paraprofessionals were busy with other difficult students when Avonte broke away from his classmates. They were busy with another child who had run off, and it took six minutes for the paraprofessionals to realize Avonte was gone.
  • When an assistant principal asked building principal Edgar Rodriguez if she could view surveillance video that would have shown Avonte leaving the school, “he responded that he did not have the password for the video system,” the report stateed.
  • Rodriguez refused to call for a soft lockdown of the school after Avonte disappeared, the report stated. “According to Rodriguez, he did not implement a soft lockdown because he needed more information to assess the situation,” the report states. When Rodriguez realized that police were involved in the search, he ordered the lockdown. But it was far too late to save Avonte.
  • The report also revealed that school administrators failed to call police for more than an hour after Avonte disappeared, and it took them even longer to call Avonte’s mother to tell her he was missing.

In the weeks following Abonte’s disappearance, school officials revised security measures and ordered a complete overhaul of methods used to keep track of the more than 100,000 special needs students in city schools.

Former City Schools Chancellor Dennis Wolcott said in November 2013 that the Department of Education (DOE) was implementing or expanding educational training for school staffs and security guards, providing 2-way radios and updated video systems to the schools, along with a “panic button” notification system that would provide instant communication if a student attempted to leave a building unattended.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in January 2014 that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would start paying for the development and distribution of tracking devices for autistic children, under a measure introduced by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer dubbed “Avonte’s Law.”

The Senate also approved a $30 million package to fund the devices and expand support services for children with developmental disabilities. The devices could be attached to a child’s belt, clothing, or shoes and would be distributed free of charge on a volunteer basis to at-risk youngsters like Avonte, a spokesperson for Schumer said.

Findings in the report were sent to the schools chancellor and the Queens District Attorney’s office for review. The report did not allege that any crime was committed by teachers or school administrators and did not recommend that any school employee should be punished for their actions.

In response to Avonte’s death and several other incidents involving students who disappeared from city schools, the City Council last year passed a bill called “Avonte’s Law” that requires the city Department of Education to survey all city public schools to evaluate the need for additional safety measures, including audible alarms.

Rose said 97 per cent of the schools requested the door alarms. Schools that turned down the alarms either already had them in place or are located in buildings with advanced security systems.

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