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.