Brother of Lost Autistic Boy Heads to Law School after Tragedy

Monday, April 28, 2014 - 04:00 AM

Danny Oquendo decided to go to law school and become a disabilities rights lawyer, he starts school this fall. Danny Oquendo decided to go to law school after his brother Avonte died, to help children with special needs. He starts at New York Law School this fall, in Lower Manhattan.. (Amy Pearl/WNYC)

When a 14-year-old autistic boy named Avonte Oquendo disappeared from his public school in Queens last October, his family organized search parties and maintained a command center outside the school. Along with Avonte's parents, his half-brother Danny Oquendo was critical to keeping the city's attention on the missing boy. 

After the boy's remains were found in the East River three months later, Danny said he was motivated to make a change in his life, crediting a man he met during the search with his new career focus.  That man was Attorney Gary Mayerson who specializes in helping children with autism.

Over lunch one day Oquendo learned more about Mayerson's work.

"I thought, wow, that's awesome, I didn't know lawyers did that," he recalled. "After the sad news of Avonte passing, I was reinvigorated to reapply to law school and do something that Gary's firm does."

He recently accepted an offer to attend New York Law School. And Mayerson has promised Oquendo a summer associate's position next year.

Although he's still learning about special education law, Oquendo said his priority will be improving school safety because of the way his brother was able to slip out of school. Mainly, he wants to turn his family's tragedy into something that can help others.

"Bad things do happen. They happen to everyone," he said. "You just have to be able to turn around and turn it into something good and positive."


Comments [7]


Good for him! I think when people are affected by something life altering, they often go into that field of work. Maybe as a way to heal themselves, to heal others or to just make a difference! I applaud this young man!

May. 06 2014 11:06 PM
rh from near nyc

Most folks don't get what parents of special needs children and their kids have to deal with on a daily basis. My six year old was put in "basket holds" which choked him and made him lose his breath, and I was invited to attend the training to "help the staff" use holds safely. Several people including his own full-time aide were LAUGHING while the trainer was demonstrating the proper way to restrain and move a resisting child.

There is a great need for this kind of work, and it doesn't pay well. These kids cannot advocate for themselves and the parents just don't have any idea what is happening at school. And not all but too many people working with special needs children are undereducated and undertrained.

Apr. 29 2014 12:09 AM
Claudia Pringles from Vermont

Not all lawyers are litigators. I have a law practice dedicated to special needs law and find it to be very rewarding, even though it is no where near as lucrative as other law practice areas.This was a natural practice area for me because I have a child with autism of my own and I understand what it is like for other parents.

I wish Danny the best and I know that he will do many great things in his life.

Apr. 28 2014 04:11 PM

Love last line in article

Apr. 28 2014 10:40 AM
Migraine from Park Slope

Hey Joe--lawyers do more than just sue people.

I applaud this young man and wish the best for him and his family. After such a heartbreaking tragedy, it's wonderful to see Danny turn his loss into a motivating force to help others.

Best of luck to you Danny.

Apr. 28 2014 09:31 AM

So sueing people is the answer?
The security guard failed at his job. He saw him run by and didn't stop him.
On top of that no one was watching the security cameras.
This is honestly an administrative issue.

Don't let elementary school kids leave by themselves is the real issue at hand, a non-special needs kid could have drowned just as easily.

Apr. 28 2014 07:32 AM
lesterine from manhattan

lovely story, thank you.
this is a bright note of hope in an otherwise very tragic story.
danny is an inspiration to me and hopefully many of his peers.
i wish him good luck and perseverance.

Apr. 28 2014 06:43 AM

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