2015-10-14 / Front Page

Remembering Avonte With A March To Save Others

By Liz Goff

Vanessa Fontaine’s greatest fear became reality on October 4, 2013, the day her 14-year-old autistic son, Avonte Oquendo, bolted out a side door at the Riverview School in Long Island City, and was never seen alive again.
Avonte’s disappearance sparked an intensive, three-month tri-county search, with police and hundreds of volunteers combing the streets for clues to the teen’s whereabouts.
The search came to a tragic end on January 16, 2014, when Avonte’s remains were discovered on a rocky shoreline at Powell’s Cove in College Point.
Family and friends gathered with Fontaine on October 4 at a park adjacent to the school, where they celebrated Avonte’s life and joined in a “March For Safety,” calling for changes in school security that could have prevented his untimely death.
Oquendo family attorney, David Perecman, said the family held the march to “shed light on the needless loss of a young life” and to remind the city to “stay on course” to complete installation of audible alarms at city schools that require the extra security measures.
The alarms, along with other security, are being installed at city schools under legislation passed by the City Council in 2014 dubbed “Avonte’s Law.” Under the law, DOE officials are required to survey all city public schools to evaluate the need for additional security measures, including the audible alarms.
A DOE spokesperson said that 97 percent of city schools requested the door alarms. Schools that turned down the alarms either already had them, or are located in buildings with advanced security systems.
A DOE spokesperson had said last June that the agency was in the process of installing 21,000 of the alarms at city schools, with installation to be completed by the end of this year.
DOE officials said in November 2014 that the agency would be implementing or expanding educational training for school staff members, that school security guards would be provided with new, two-way radios and updated video surveillance and “panic buttons” that would provide instant, in-school communication if a student attempts to leave a school unattended. An agency spokesperson said DOE would also provide new training for school workers that would allow them to better manage students during transitional periods between classes, when there is a risk they might try to slip out of school buildings unnoticed.
Avonte Oquendo disappeared when his class was being escorted from a lunchroom to a computer classroom at the Riverview School, authorities said. It took school staffers six minutes to realize Avonte was missing, and more than an hour to alert police of his disappearance.
DOE officials did not immediately respond to inquiries regarding the status of the updated staff training.
A report released by city investigators months after Avonte disappeared said a series of errors and lapses led to the death of the autistic teen.
The 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,” Fontaine wrote, “Please make sure you keep an eye out because Avonte likes to run. Need one-on-one supervision. Will leave the building.”
The report said 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. 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.”
Former US Attorney General Eric Holder said in January 2014 that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had agreed to finance development and distribution of tracking devices for autistic children, under pending federal legislation introduced by US Sen. Charles Schumer.
The Senate approved a $30 million package to fund the devices and expand support services for children with developmental disabilities. The devices would be designed to attach to a child’s belt, clothing, or shoes and would be distributed free of charge, with parental approval, to at-risk youngsters like Avonte, a Schumer spokesperson said.
Schumer, who joined in the October 4 March said, “I pledge to do everything I can to see that Avonte’s Law is passed this year by the Senate and signed into federal law.”
The Oquendo family has filed a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit with New York City.
Fontaine thanked the marchers, many of whom volunteered in the search for Avonte, for their continued support. “It’s hard to believe that it has been two years,” Fontaine said. “The pain gets a little easier, but it will never go away.”

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