Avonte Oquendo's Death Hits Home for Special Needs Families

Wednesday, January 22, 2014 - 02:04 PM

The Riverview School in Long Island City, where Avonte Oquendo disappeared on October 4 (Alana Casanova-Burgess/WNYC)

Avonte Oquendo wasn’t just a missing child. Severely autistic and unable to speak, he represented the city's most vulnerable children.

"In the community, it’s like we’ve lost a family member," said Joe Williams, the father of a 14-year-old son with autism who is also unable to speak.

Williams is very active in "the community." He's on the board of the New York City Special Education Collaborative, which partners with charter and district schools, and belongs to the National Association for the Education of African American Children with Learning Disabilities. The Brooklyn father got to know Avonte’s family over the past few months, and joined the massive effort to find him by police and volunteers. He said he was hoping for a miracle and that Avonte's death "just really hit home and hurt very, very much."

What’s especially painful, he said, is knowing that Avonte disappeared from a public school. One that specializes in serving children with disabilities.

"When you put a special needs child in the hands of the Department of Education, you’re actually putting a child’s life in their hands," he explained. "This child is depending on them for everything: to go to the bathroom, when to get up, when to sit down, when to put on your coat... This is what we go through as parents of children with special needs."

Which is why there’s been so much scrutiny of Avonte’s school. Avonte attended the Riverview School in Long Island City. It’s in a brand-new building that also houses a middle school and a high school.

The Riverview children have their own floor, and there are extra school aides called paraprofessionals to help teachers monitor these children with special needs. But the lawyer for Avonte’s family, David Perecmen, claimed the school made numerous errors - which is why the family will file a wrongful death lawsuit against the city for up to $25 million.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Perecman sounded angry as he detailed how Avonte disappeared after lunch, walked past a security guard and exited an open side door that should have been closed.

"I can’t understand why the door was open for between 10 and 15 minutes before Avonte went out and then she goes over to it and closes it," he said, of the guard. "I can’t understand why it took them over two hours to get the codes to videotapes, so they could indeed know that Avonte left the school. I cannot understand all that. I cannot understand why it took them an hour to call this child’s mother."

Perecman first made these allegations to WNYC in December, based on the Department of Education’s own internal documents which he obtained through a freedom of information request. The Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City Schools is still conducting its own investigation. A spokeswoman said there is no timeline for when the report will be released.

Avonte’s family is not yet ready to speak publicly. Perecman said the boy’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, held out hope until the very end that he would be found alive. For months, she and other family members helped organize volunteers who searched for Avonte all over the city. She believed he was somewhere near the school.

The Riverview School is surrounded with potential hiding places. It's on the edge of the East River next to several new residential construction sites, the Queens Midtown Tunnel and a Long Island Rail Road yard. After Avonte's disappearance, some family members wondered if it was a good location for a school with special needs children.

Gloria Corsino also spent the past few months hoping Avonte would be found alive. The Bronx mother has two teenage sons with autism spectrum disorder who attend special needs schools - known as District 75 Schools by the D.O.E. The Riverview School is among them.

On Tuesday, Corsino said she couldn’t bring herself to listen to the news. But now, she said she hopes the Department of Education will take extra steps to educate paraprofessionals, or paras, and everyone working with children with special needs about security issues.

"When you educate someone better they are actually more aware," she said. "And I think it should not just be for the paras. It should not just be for school safety. It should not just be for educators. It should be for anyone who is in that building, down to the custodians."

Former Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced some refinements to security protocols after Avonte's disappearance.

Corsino said she’s written a letter to the new chancellor, Carmen Fariña, urging her to meet with District 75 parents. But she’s also taken her own steps to guard her children more carefully. This past fall, she sewed labels into their clothes with her name and cell phone number.



Julianne Welby


Comments [10]

joellen from Queens, NY

Peony from NJ - I believe there are reasons that God blesses certain families with special needs children. I am such a person. Narrow minded people like you could never handle the immense responsibility that comes with raising a child with special needs. You obviously cannot comprehend the anxiety and fear involved in placing the care and safety of your special needs child in someone else's hands. The law requires that these children go to school. It is the Board of Education's responsibility to keep these children safe while they are in their care. They failed. They failed Avonte and they failed his family. Period. Perhaps if your "normal" child walked out of school and ended up dead you would see things differently. But again, that is why you were not chosen to be the mother of a special needs child and that is why you are incapable of comprehending what a special gift each of those children teach us. You need to pray that someone show you what really is impprtant in life.

Jan. 29 2014 12:00 AM
New York parent from Queens

Peony from New Jersey, you are an awful person. I can only wish that the next time this happens it is to someone you love for you to feel the pain and become human. I would be surprised if you do have children. If you do, you are clearly missing an important quality as a parent.

Jan. 25 2014 09:17 PM

Teaneck lady I don't think you understand the gravity of even having an child with autism more less die from this situaton.This child like my own has an 100% dependsy on their caretakers, teachers,guardians,etc.The money will take away from nothing even though they can't phantom spending money now or during his disappearance . I've met with them and among the searches hoping for them and for myself all I could think this could be me.If you knew autism this child's anyway you wouldn't be narrow minded to think to say "excessive expectations each child at that school isn't dead Avonte Oquendo is!

Jan. 25 2014 06:19 PM
lareina riley roberts

Terrible terrible terrible, the security guard should of been more focus on her job, if she was, the boy would of still been alive today.

Jan. 24 2014 11:16 PM
peony from NJ

It is terrible what this family has gone through.

However, the idea that taxpayers should fund bulwarks against every possible imaginable bad outcome and every bad outcome is someone's "fault" is unacceptable. Not that long ago children with Avonte's degree of disability did not go to public schools. As noted by others, educating special needs children, some of whom will learn enough to be productive, costs more than educating a normal child and takes resources away from those children. There is not enough money in anyone's budget, anywhere, to essentially provide 1:1 monitoring of mentally handicapped students every minute that they are in school. Without such monitoring, accidents are bound to happen. Would someone sue the family for millions of dollars because their mentally handicapped child slipped out a door accidentally left open?

It is true that children have a right to an education. It is true that taxpayer funds should be used to educate our children as best as is possible given their individual abilities and the constraints of budgetary resources. However, in contrast to Colleen from the Bronx, it is not true that every handicapped child has a right to taxpayer-funded individual education guaranteed to protect against all possible actions they might take that could possibly result in harm. That is like suing schools because not every child is "above average". Blame/sue the school if the child does not live up to parents' expectations! If parents want minute to minute monitoring of their severely disabled children in school, than they should bear any additional expense beyond the resources allocated to normal children. Perhaps they should have their child implanted with a GPS devices and engage in electronic tracking? Perhaps they should band together and fund implanted GPS devices for all at-risk children as well as the alarmed monitors needed at every possible egress of schools that serve these children. Insisting that taxpayers should be responsible for a mentally handicapped child's behavior even while in a special school with precautions in place is unrealistic. Why should Avonte's tragic fate result in every other child in the system having money taken away from their educational needs? The money wont restore him to life. It will make the lawyer rich, since he will claim at least 40% of the settlement. The money might make the family well-to-do; it is certainly more than their severely disabled child would ever have earned in a lifetime. But it won't make things safer. Perhaps we should require that parents wanting special education for their disabled children have to sign a waiver against lawsuits unless they are willing to pay themselves for the 1:1 chaperones, or the electronic monitoring required to ensure their child never goes where s/he is not supposed to go.

Jan. 23 2014 01:31 PM
Colleen from The Bronx from BRONX, NY

@Elizabeth from North Jersey.
Special needs children deserve quality education AND supervision. Sorry you have a difficult time understanding that even special needs children have a CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT to an education and that LESS tax dollars are spent facilitating the education of a special needs child than, say, the average convicted rapist/pedophile in prison. If you are going to stand on a soap box about where your tax dollars are going, I suggest you direct your disgust towards Corporate Welfare, Kosher Meals in Prison, HydroFracking and the enormous salary and perks elected officials receive BEFORE you complain about special needs children receiving a tax payer funded public education. As with the case of Avonte Oquendo, it is woefully obvious your sentiments are shared by the individuals charged with - and salaried - caring for special needs students on DOE property.

Jan. 23 2014 10:31 AM

Thank you Beth, for being the first reporter to get to the heart of how this story feels for parents of children with ASD's. My heart aches for him and his family, and this is the only thing I have heard (or read) that gets close to explaining how I feel.

I have no comments for Elizabeth from NJ, who clearly has no concept of what it's like to be a parent of a special needs child.

Jan. 23 2014 09:25 AM
Nell from Coney Island

Obviously we can see the above writers have no kids with need of specialty, therefore cannot seem to grasp the comprehension that's needed to relate to why this awful situation has outraged nearly everyone from all over. It's not money or financial means that may or will fix the horrible ordeal of Avonte's death. To help some of these unbrite people above understand the reasons behind the lawsuit in the makings. The lawsuit can NEVER SOLEY be about the lost of their son, but also for the lost of time, work wages, money put into that childs life prior, as the list can go on. The lawsuit is to hold the City if NYC responsible for the lost if their child. So if you still can not see why the lawsuit is relevant, let's focus your attention as to if you was inside of an automobile accidents and everyone inside of your car was killed by the hands of a drunk person, you would be looking for restitution for your family and loved ones . The only thing the family is able to do is file a civil suit for wrongful death because no one can be held accountable criminally for a criminal act simply because there where no laws broken & negligence is not viewed as a crime.

Jan. 23 2014 07:43 AM
Elizabeth from North Jersey

Severely handicapped children do not belong in public schools. There are not enough money in a municipality's school budget to operate secure buildings with the trained staff necessary to handle children who will never learn. A school's mission statement should be teaching children skills that will let them function as independent, wise, and productive adults. Children like Avonte need other serves but it shouldn't be part of a school budget at the expense of regular education.

It distressed me that what used to enhance regular education -- arts, music, sports, small class size -- are sacrificed when budgets are tight while special ed expenses cannot be reduced by legislative fiat. Children in regular education have been getting a worse education ever since Congress mandated that all children regardless of potential to learn, be given an education s the public's expense. This is the true education crisis in America.

I expect I'll be pilloried for my opinion, but someone needs to speak up about how much taxpayers pay for special ed per "student" vs. the regular ed student. I don't think we taxpayers are getting a good return by this inversion of educational priorities.

Jan. 22 2014 06:18 PM
TeaneckLady from New Jersey

I understand the gravity of their loss but the financial burden of the suit on the city/BOE, will take resources that could go to other children with disabilities. Why is a huge financial payoff always the first recourse for people that loose a loved one? How can the parents expect every second of the child's activity to be monitored? I just think the expectations of are excessive. What about each child at the school? I think the amount of the damages are excessive and hurt the rest of us by depleting resources.

Jan. 22 2014 05:55 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.