Department of Ed Anxious About 'Avonte's Law' Door Alarms

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Alarms on the doors of a Brooklyn elementary school

Department of Education officials voiced objections to a city council bill that would require door alarms to be installed in all buildings with elementary schools and programs for students with special needs. The legislation was drafted in response to the death of Avonte Oquendo, a teenage boy with autism who disappeared from his Queens public school last fall.

Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm told city council members that not all principals want audible alarms in their buildings. "We do have door alarms, they are in our toolkit, but we just want to retain discretion to place them where we think appropriate," she said.

Gary Hecht, superintendent of District 75 for children with severe special needs, said alarms could frighten children with autism. He said it's "fright and flight for some kids" who might run if an alarm went off accidentally. "They'll leave and knock you over to get out of the building," he said, adding, "it's different for every student."

Instead of requiring alarms, officials said the city is working to improve the training of all staff members around the protocols for what to do when a child is missing. Elayna Konstan, the chief executive officer for safety, also said the city is working to improve communication within each school building around students who have a tendency to wander. Children with autism, in particular, tend to run when startled or afraid.

But Brooklyn councilman Robert Cornegy, the bill's main sponsor, questioned whether this approach has been effective. He said at least eight young children wandered out of their schools this year and were missing for between 15 minutes and an hour before anyone noticed. He added that none of them have disabilities and they were unharmed.

"We're just lucky that we dodged a tremendous bullet," he said.

Cornegy and other council members also noted that principals have been able to put simple alarms on their doors for less than $200 each.

But Grimm said it would cost $9 million to fully comply with the legislation. She said the city favors digital cameras that can be monitored by safety agents. As of May, she stated that these camera systems have been installed in more than 500 buildings serving approximately 870 schools, and that another 100 buildings will get them by the end of 2015.

The legislation is supported by many parents and the teachers union. Some who testified seemed puzzled by the Department of Education’s objection to door alarms. “You need to balance the costs and benefits,” said Kim Mack Rosenberg, president of the New York metro chapter of the National Autism Association, which supports the bill.

Avonte disappeared out a door that had been left open. His grandmother, Doris McCoy, told the council that alarms are needed and that cameras need to be checked immediately when a child is missing. Staffers at Avonte’s school weren’t able to access the video feed for almost two hours because nobody had the right code. “If it was sooner they would've gotten Avonte," she said.

The family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city.