Avonte Oquendo has been missing for two weeks since he walked out of the Riverview School in Long Island City, Queens on Friday, October 4. He is 14 years old, autistic and unable to communicate verbally.
I keep asking myself: how could Avonte have been allowed to leave his school?
It may sound odd, but I think I have a bit of a sense why.
Take a glance at a photo of Avonte and it’s not immediately obvious that he — like my severely autistic teenage son Charlie – has severe disabilities and cannot communicate. There’s no wheelchair, no crutches. At 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 125 pounds, Avonte might appear to those who don’t know that he is old enough to take care of himself. As he is autistic, it would not occur to Avonte that he should tell someone this.
On October 4, during lunchtime at around 12.38pm, Avonte was in the school hallway without a teacher or an aide, as David H. Perecman, a lawyer for his family, tells the New York Times. When he was at a door leading outside, a security guard asked Avonte a question. Receiving no reply, the guard let Avonte out. Avonte’s teacher did not realize he was missing until class began again.
It was only after almost an hour had passed that the school contacted Avonte’s mother and the police.
NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly says that he is not holding the guard responsible for Avonte’s disappearance. But why did no one think to train the guards and all staff in the school building about autism and that, with autistic children in the school, it was all the more imperative that no children be allowed to leave?
Avonte is Missing: Why, Why, Why?
Avonte’s disappearance leaves a host of questions that must be considered in providing care for older autistic children who are fast becoming young adults.
Perecman calls the delay in contacting Avonte’s family and the police “preposterous.” Indeed it was: Avonte’s Individualized Education Plan (I.E.P.) specified that he “be in a class with one teacher and one paraprofessional for every six pupils.” He was certainly not supposed to be unattended and roaming in the hallway. School staff knew that he tended to run in the hallways as this was mentioned in his previous I.E.P. In addition, as autistic children can find such less-structured times of the day such as lunch challenging, there was an ever greater need for Avonte to have a teacher or aide with him at the time of his disappearance.
Avonte was in his first year in a special education program at Riverview that is housed in a building also containing a middle school and a high school for typical students. In New York City schools, there has been a much greater focus on mainstreaming students with disabilities rather than segregating them in separate schools. There are many advantages to such a policy (a recent study notes that children’s attitudes about disabilities improve by having greater exposure to students with disabilities). But, as a result, Avonte was in a school in which not all the staff were necessarily trained about students with disabilities.
Perecman has filed a claim against the city on behalf of Avonte’s family. As he says, ”What happened here was clearly a series of mistakes. His mother was under the understanding that Avonte would be under constant supervision.”
An Endless Nightmare For Avonte’s Family
Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, has said that every day is a “nightmare.” In a recent message, his family has said that he “may be with someone else.” If he’s like my son, Avonte might be inclined to do whatever some adult who he chanced upon told him to do. If he were in a situation he was not comfortable with, he may not be able to get out of it.
She has recorded a message — “Avonte, this is your mother. You are safe. Walk toward the lights” — that is now blaring out from the loudspeakers of New York police patrol cars and search vehicles. As Avonte is fascinated with trains and the subway, a team of 50 NYPD officers and a detectives have been scouring the tracks, the cars and every nook and cranny of every station. Divers are also searching the waterways in and around New York City. A reward of up to $77,500 is being offered for any information on Avonte’s whereabouts.
My husband takes the subway to his job in central Manhattan and told me, every few minutes, appeals to find Avonte are heard. That’s all he and I have said to each other about Avonte since we heard of him missing.
Fontaine says simply that Avonte’s school “failed me.”
It’s supposed to start getting cold here on the East Coast this week. How much longer will Avonte be missing?
Photo via MTAPhotos/Flickr