Fourteen-year-old Avonte Oquendo’s mother made sure his teacher was aware that he might run away, but that information was not shared among other school administrators, according to a 12-page report on his October disappearance.
City Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard J. Condon put out the report last week detailing his investigation into the autistic teen from Rego Park’s disappearance after he wandered away from PS 277, the Riverview School, in Long Island City. The boy remained at large until January, when his remains washed ashore near the East River in College Point.
His cause of death could not be identified, according to the city medical examiner’s office.
Vanessa Fontaine had warned Riverview teacher Julie Murray that her son had a tendency to wander off, writing in a note stating, “Please make sure you keep an eye out he likes to run. Need 1-1 supervisor will leave the building,” the report said. While Murray did share that information with coworkers inside the classroom, she did not notify the administration, Condon said.
The boy’s mother filed a notice of claim back in October expressing her intentions to sue the city and Education Department for not doing more to keep her son from running away during school hours.
“Someone has to pay for this mistake,” Fontaine said at a press conference after the report was released. “I did write down my concerns that my son was a runner and to please watch him.”
Avonte did just what his mother had feared on Oct. 4 when he disappeared from the school and sparked a months-long citywide search for the student. Lapses in judgment and administrational missteps were highlighted in the special commissioner’s report addressed to the schools chancellor and Queens district attorney trying to piece together how a 14-year-old teen with autism could slip through their fingers so easily.
“As chancellor, I am determined that we learn every lesson we can from this terrible tragedy and do everything in our power to prevent incidents like this from ever occurring again,” City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement when his body was found in January. “Let Avonte remind us how important it is that we continue to look out for one another.”
While Condon’s report did not accuse anyone of a crime, it did deliver an in-depth
look at the school’s security protocols. Condon’s findings outlined the moment when the 14-year-old disappeared, just as a teacher and paraprofessional at the school were moving his class from the fifth to the second floor of their Long Island City school. Administrators did not notice the teen had instead descended onto the ground floor, past a security guard, and out an unlocked door leading to the street.
One thing the report did not uncover, however, was which employee was ultimately responsible for the unlocked door that could have prevented the teen’s disappearance. A custodian who saw an unidentified person leaving via surveillance footage told investigators he thought it was actually one of the building’s architects, the report said.
The city has yet to take any disciplinary action with school employees as investigations into the teen’s disappearance continued.
“Today, we learned more about what happened on that fateful day,” a DOE spokesman said in a statement when the report was released Thursday. “We are reviewing the report closely and are committed to working diligently to prevent another tragedy like this from every occurring again.”
By Phil Corso