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In Case of Missing Boy, Concerns that Shared School Space Was a Factor

Friday, October 11, 2013 - 02:36 PM

Avonte Oquendo is an autistic mute student who disappeared from school Community 'Command Center' for Search of a Missing Teen (Alana Casanova-Burgess)

For families of children with special needs, the week-long search for a missing 14-year-old boy with autism has many wondering what went wrong in a public school created to serve some of the city’s most vulnerable children. One of the concerns in the special education community is that his school – like many special education programs – shares space with another school, an arrangement that may make security more challenging.

Anyone with leads on Avonte Oquendo should call police at 1-800-577-TIPS.

Avonte Oquendo is a student at the Riverview School, a District 75 program for children with special needs. A high school, the Academy for Careers in Television and Film, also occupies the new building on 51st Street Avenue in Long Island City.

District 75 schools rarely get their own buildings. This is largely because the programs are required to provide individualized education plans, or IEPs, for the children which in turn means small classes and extra rooms for therapy and other services. With space as a premium, it is common for the children of one District 75 school to be scattered among several different public school buildings.

According to the family's attorney, David Perecman, a school security guard did not stop Oquendo from leaving on Oct. 4 because she may have confused him for one of the high school students. 

Joe Williams is the former president of the city’s District 75 parents council. He said almost all of these District 75 programs share space with other schools. His own 14-year-old son is autistic and attends the program located inside Sunset Park High School.

“Most of the time they’re on an entirely different floor,” he said. But they don’t have their own separate security guards. “The security guards are for the building,” he said.

Nonetheless, Williams said everyone in the building is supposed to know which students are where, and when the students from one school are using the gymnasium or cafeteria.

Williams said the schools are generally treated like "stepchildren" and that they are feeling more pressure now because the city is opening more schools inside existing buildings. One former school official agreed. Adding a school doesn’t mean the building gets an additional security guard, the official told WNYC, meaning security can be stretched “very, very thin.”

Safety agents are trained by the police department. Gregory Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents the safety agents, issued a statement:

“Our school safety agents are highly trained and effective. Keeping our children safe while they are at school is always our top priority. We are heartbroken that Avonte left the school without notice and are determined to do everything we can to ensure he is found safe and sound.”

Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Thursday that he remains confident in the safety procedures, but that something went wrong in this case and the D.O.E. will investigate in conjunction with the police department. Neither the Chancellor nor anyone else interviewed by WNYC could recall a child who disappeared from school and remained missing for more than a few hours.

Walcott also said Avonte was supposed to be in a class setting of no more than six students per teacher, plus one paraprofessional (school aide). These settings are for students with the most serious disabilities.

But Williams said teachers or paraprofessionals are supposed to accompany the students to and from lunch, and other activities such as speech therapy.

"So that child should have not been out of the class alone,” he said, referring to the lawyer’s statement that the boy disappeared during a transition.

He said he wants to know whether the other children in Avonte’s class had their own paraprofessionals, and whether they were all present last Friday, in order to determine whether there were enough adults watching the boy in the hallway.

Gary Mayerson, an attorney who has represented many children with autism, said he has met many families who claimed their children were not safe in public school buildings and requested a transfer to a private school. However, he said this does not mean co-locations, or shared schools, are inherently unsafe.

He also said he supports the goal of inclusion, mixing children with special needs in the same building as general education students so they are not isolated in their own schools.

But Mayerson acknowledged children with autism are at risk of slipping away from school, because they have a tendency to wander. One special education teacher in a New York City public school, who did not want to be identified, agreed.

“Unfortunately, it’s a common occurrence with kids with autism,” the teacher said. “What frightens me is that this could happen to any teacher, in any school, no matter how many procedures are followed. These kids are quick and it does happen. What's important is to realize their missing quickly, so they can be located quickly."

Editors:

Patricia Willens

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Comments [5]

BOB from NY

this what happen. ny lawyers have video and the door being left open by an unknown person or teacher not sure who. then the boy walked out of the school through that entrance. 30 minutes later the security guard closed that door. the boy was autistic and size 3 and was known to walk off and run away. none of the kids had identified card attach to their bodies for thAT SPECIAL DISTRICT 75 SCHOOL. the teacher who drop off and picked up that class of kids should made sure that student was safe and in the lunchroom or ASSIGN CLASSROOM. their was no para-professional sign to the child in the school building. the principal allow that school to be open knowing some of the entrances had no video cameras and no locks. the principal runs the school and failed in keeping those students safe and secure inside the school building even though it was anew school building. if that was the issue then the children should of never been allow inside that building. the security guard failed, the teacher assign to the child failed, the no para professional assign to that child since october. no vice principal assign to that child. where was the lead and head conseulor for those students. and where was the assign safteY director assign to those group of students. total failure FOR EVERY ADULT INSIDE that River School in Long Island City, NY.

Mar. 19 2014 12:33 PM
sandy anderson from North Carolina

Miss Rim is correct, however, the question remains. Why did the person assigned to him not realize he was gone within minutes? Why was the front not notified with description and orders to secure all doors until he was found immediately? Do guards and personal not check hall passes for where the person is to be and be sure they get there as they are suppose to be? Since when is it normal for a guard to simply dismiss being ignored by the person they address as they take off running out a side door instead of checking to see where they should be, why they aren't there and that they get there immediately be them special needs or not. No laws about unmanned doors concerning alarms? Really? With all the school shootings and such and especially where special needs children that can't communicate are at? Special needs or not I see several issues with this school, city's laws and the way they are ran. Special needs that wonder off and there was no fence around the yards with a guard by the only entrance/exit to the parking lot and road as there should be? I see shared blame all way around in this case. A wise word of advice to parents of special needs children. Be discerning about where and with whom you leave the well being of your child with. I only read a small amount about this case and place and know it is not a secure place for such a child. Convenient and secure are two very different issues. Go the extra mile for secure if the convenient place is not. I'm a special needs teacher myself in public as well as private facilities. Not all that fit the bill for such care are actually fit to give such care. Know the difference.

Jan. 13 2014 10:13 PM
Miss Rim

I teach in a D75 school that shares space with a general ed school. I agree with Mr. Williams - often the D75 programs are treated as "stepchildren." There's a systemic issue here - many of the staff in the general ed programs - this includes, teachers, custodians, security, and cafeteria workers are not informed and simply do not understand the degree of care and supervision some of our neediest students require - nor do they know how "easily" a student can wander off - even with the more restrictive IEP plans. If Avonte had a one to one paraprofessional assigned to him- s/he would have a lunch break or be able to use the bathroom during the work day, and another adult in the classroom would be assigned to watch him. But even under the best of circumstances, children can get lost. I wonder if this would have happened had there had been more information and training about the special needs students in the building for all the staff.

Oct. 14 2013 06:40 PM
Kathleen Logan from Astoria, NY

Thank you WNYC for your informative report on the matter of the missing autistic boy. Thank you Patricia Willens. I sincerely hope he is found alive. These children need special understanding. Please read a new book by one of them - "The Reason I Jump" by Naoki Higashida - translated into English.

Oct. 12 2013 07:53 PM
Kathleen Logan from Astoria, NY

Thank you WNYC for your informative report on the matter of the missing autistic boy. Thank you Patricia Willens. I sincerely hope he is found alive. These children need special understanding. Please read a new book by one of them - "The Reason I Jump" by Naoki Higashida - translated into English.

Oct. 12 2013 07:53 PM

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