Oquendo’s Grandmother sounds Off for School Alarms

Oquendo’s Grandmother sounds Off for School Alarms

The grandmother of Avonte Oquendo, a teen with autism who died after escaping from his special needs school in Long Island City, is calling on the city to install alarms on school doors to prevent another tragedy from happening.  File Photo

The grandmother of Avonte Oquendo, a teen with autism who died after escaping from his special needs school in Long Island City, is calling on the city to install alarms on school doors to prevent another tragedy from happening. File Photo

The grandmother of the 14-year-old with autism who went missing and eventually turned up dead called on the City Council to act faster in its efforts to keep that from ever happening again.

Doris McCoy testified before the City Council’s Education Committee last Thursday morning discussing “Avonte’s Law,” which would require the Education Department to equip all special education elementary schools’ exit doors with an alarm system. Her grandson Avonte Oquendo wandered out of the Riverview School in Long Island City in October, setting off a citywide search for the Rego Park boy before his remains washed ashore in College Point in January.

“If a special needs child goes missing and gets passed the school safety person to the door, there are steps that should be taken,” she said. “I believe cameras and alarms should be on at all school hours, a door alarm should go off then the doors open and a camera should be recording activities in the hall at all times.”

In her testimony, McCoy provided some suggestions the DOE should consider to prevent another special needs child from disappearing, including wearing a badge identifying them as special needs during school hours and installing more safety precautions.

“If it was sooner, they would have gotten Avonte,” she said.

But the Education Department saw the issue a bit differently. At the hearing, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said there was no solution that could work across the board such as installing door alarms, which could run the city about $9 million. In her testimony, Grimm said alarms could go off too frequently at District 75 special education schools, potentially disturbing, distracting or frightening special needs children.

David Perecman, an attorney for Oqeundo’s family, said the school could have done more in a letter read before the Council last week. He argued the door alarms would help supplement the work of the school safety division, which he acknowledged are capable of making mistakes.

“I have reviewed the video tapes and evidence regarding how Avonte was able to leave his school and know, despite that other mistakes that were made, that had the doors had been equipped with functioning door alarms, that someone would have had the one critical piece of info that was necessary to go save Avonte from the dangerous city that was outside the door,” Perecman said.

City Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard J. Condon released a report in April showing the boy’s mother had warned school officials of his tendency to wander. It 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.

The report showed Fontaine met with Riverview teacher Julie Murray before the incident, writing in a note, “Please make sure you keep an eye out he likes to run. Need 1-1 supervisor will leave the building,” the report said.

Murray did not share that information with coworkers inside the classroom, nor did she notify the administration, Condon said.

His remains washed ashore in January off the East River in College Point. The city Medical Examiner’s office was unable to determine a cause of death.

Vanessa Fontaine, the boy’s mother, filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit May 30 against the city and nine school officials pinning them responsible for her son’s disappearance. She put the blame on school safety agent Bernadette Perez, Principal Susan McNulty and several others, accusing them of negligence. The lawsuit was filed in Queens Supreme Court.

Perecman said the family was seeking $25 million for the damages they have suffered.

By Phil Corso

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