Beth Fertig is the contributing editor for education, covering the New York City public school system for WNYC on air and online at SchoolBook.org. She has covered education in the city for more than 15 years. Beth is the author of Why cant u teach me 2 read? Three Students and a Mayor Put Our Schools to the Test (FSG Books) which grew out of a radio series on the low graduation rate for special education students. Follow her @bethfertig.
Lawyer for Missing Boy says D.O.E. Documented Mistakes at His School
Monday, December 23, 2013 - 03:30 PM
It’s been two and a half months since a mute autistic boy ran out of his special education school after lunch. Now, an internal investigation by the Department of Education finds alarming missteps and confusion at the school after 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo disappeared, according to his family’s lawyer.
Attorney David Perecman obtained documents from the D.O.E.’s own internal investigation. A full investigation has not yet been produced by an outside agency, the Special Commissioner of Investigation of the New York City Schools.
Perecman declined to let WNYC view the D.O.E. documents, citing confidentiality reasons. But he said the school system’s internal account reveals a disturbing timeline:
- Avonte was seen on the school’s own security footage with other students leaving lunch on the 5th floor of the Riverview School on October 4th. They entered the stairs at 12:36 p.m. with staffers.
- The children were seen a minute later exiting the stairs on the 2nd floor, going to a technology room. But Avonte was not present.
- At 12:37 video shows Avonte entering the first floor, running down the lobby toward one side of the building past the security desk, then in another direction and exiting the side door on Center Boulevard; this door was ajar.
- At 12:40 a substitute paraprofessional (aide) who had been watching the line of children after lunch informs the teacher that Avonte is missing. Video footage shows a teacher, Mitchell Glover, checking the hallway.
- A sweep of the first floor is conducted, a security agent walks down the hall and closes the side door at 12:41 p.m.
- At 12:56 a security coordinator reports to the assistant principal that Avonte is missing. A sweep is conducted of the interior and exterior of the building. The first floor security agent is asked if she saw Avonte and says she saw him run down the hallway and then go upstairs.
- Staffers discuss but decline to go into lockdown mode. They tried to view video surveillance footage, but did not have access codes.
- At 1:20 staffers notify the principal, Susan McNulty, who was at the Riverview school’s other location for younger pupils a few blocks away.
- 1:30 PM, McNulty arrives at the 51st Avenue site and asks the security agent what she saw. Again, the agent says she saw Avonte go up the stairs.
- At approximately 1:35 p.m. Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, was called; at 1:40 p.m. police were called.
- At 2:30 p.m. staffers are finally able to access the video system and see that Avonte left the building through the side door. (This video was shown to the public).
A Department of Education spokesman said the agency can’t comment because the case is still under investigation. The police department, which is responsible for school safety, has not yet given a comment.
Some of the information was previously known, such as the fact that the school called police about an hour after Avonte slipped out a side door. But Perecman said these disclosures by the D.O.E. revealed “a lot of people making a lot of mistakes.”
Avonte’s family is facing their first Christmas without him. When the boy’s mother was told about the internal report, Perecman said, “She just put her head down and said ‘I’m not surprised.’”
The attorney was surprised, however, by how long it took the D.O.E. to interview some of the staffers. Teacher Mitchell Glover wasn’t interviewed until October 16, 12 days after Avonte’s disappearance.
“It’s not the winner of the most thorough investigation of the year,” said Perecman.
The attorney was particularly puzzled about the guard’s changing story because at first she said she saw the boy go upstairs. But Perecman said this was clearly "a lie."
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has said this safety agent did nothing wrong. According to Kelly, she claimed she saw Avonte on the first floor and told him to go back to class, then lost sight of him as he went down the hall. But Avonte’s grandmother had a conversation with the same guard later that afternoon in which she claimed the safety agent showed her the side door where Avonte slipped out of the building.
The school system already knew that Avonte had a tendency to run in halls. Because of his autism diagnosis, he was supposed to be in a class of no more than six students with one teacher and one paraprofessional (school aide). Perecman said the D.O.E. reports show three adults were watching the children as they transferred from lunch to class, but the agency did not say whether they were watching only Avonte’s class or the rest of the children. It’s not known how many Riverview students were in the building that day (they share the building with two other schools). The city reported that a total of 84 children were enrolled in the Riverview school's two locations as of October 31st.
WNYC filed a Freedom of Information request for details about the school’s 51st Avenue location. On October 4th, the location had six separate classes for pupils who needed to be in groups of no more than six students plus two adults. There were a total of 39 staffers for both locations, and ten substitutes were working that day in total.
Avonte’s family filed a notice of claim against the city in October. The boy has not been found despite a massive manhunt and announcements in the subway system, which continue. His family also continues to search for him and now uses a rented storefront.
In November, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced a few changes in safety procedures.