School Safety: Avonte Oquendo’s Legacy

The Riverview School as seen via satellite from Google Earth.
The name of the school sends shivers down the spine of any parent to an autistic child. The Riverview School, a school for children with special needs, screams danger right there in the title yet the security provided the children of that school was nowhere close to being proportionate to the level of danger provided by its surroundings. A satellite view from Google Earth of The Riverview School. It indicates that those warning bells are justified.
On October 4th 2013, 14 year-old Avonte Oquendo slipped away from his class while on the way to a technology room. He allegedly ran past a security guard, out a side door and was never seen again.Family attorney David Perecman released the timeline of the events as stated in the Department of Education occurrence report to the media, but declined to release the report due to confidentiality issues. The report, as relayed by Perecman is beyond damning and shows that the school failed Avonte Oquendo at nearly every level:

12:37 – Avonte runs past the security desk towards the Borden Avenue exit before turning around and running past the security desk again, down the hall and slipping out an open door onto Center Boulevard. A security guard allegedly watched Avonte exit the school. The door is shut by a security guard shortly thereafter.
12:40 – A substitute aide notices that Avonte is missing and informs the teacher. They operate under the assumption that Avonte is still in the building and the teacher is seen on video searching for his missing student.
12:56 – The Assistant Principal is notified by a security coordinator that Avonte cannot be found. The first floor security guard is asked if she had seen Avonte and she states that she witnessed the young man run down the hall and then upstairs.
1:20 – The school notifies the principal who was not on-site, but at the sister school for younger children a short distance away.
1:30 – The principal returns and questions the first floor security guard again who repeats that she saw Avonte run down the hall and up the stairs.
1:35 – Avonte Oquendo’s mother is called.
2:00 – The NYPD was notified.
2:30 – The school finally gains access to the video surveillance system and sees that Avonte left the building through the Center Boulevard door. The delay was due to the fact that they did not have the correct password to access the video surveillance system.
The Riverview School is a school for kids with special needs. Many of those kids are autistic. Even a rudimentary knowledge of the behaviors of kids on the spectrum should include the fact that autistic kids are drawn to water. Being that close to so much water, it is incomprehensible to me that the safety measures for the children in that school could be so lax. If there was ever a school that should be on a constant state of high alert in terms of keeping their students safe, it should be The Riverview School.
It took 83 minutes from the time Avonte darted off from his teachers until the police were notified.
Here is a Google Earth Street View from the approximate location of the door exiting onto Center Boulevard looking to the East as if you were exiting the building.
Using Google Earth Street View, you can see what greets you as you exit The Riverside School on to Center Boulevard.
How many minutes do you think it would take to get to the water if you were running? Or should I say “seconds”?
When you watch the surveillance video from the camera located outside the school looking North up Center Boulevard, you see Avonte run North to the intersection and then head East towards the park and the East River.

What happened to Avonte once he ran out of frame may never be known. Regardless of the circumstances outside of the school, the administrators of The Riverview School should have been mindful of their surroundings and the security should have matched that level of danger. There should have been ZERO opportunities for a child to exit that school without alarms going off and people being notified immediately. If not Avonte, I guarantee that it was only a matter of time before this nightmare would have happened to another family.
The time has come where as a society we must question the value we place on those that are differently abled. There is no room for error when it comes to the safety of our kids with special needs. Their safety and security should not be treated as an afterthought. All of those involved with these incredible kids need to be trained and educated about their nuances. Especially in a school that serves only special needs kids as is the case with The Riverview School. Despite the fact that most cases of elopement involving autistic children do not happen at school, the loss of even one child is too much. The entire staff needs to be cognizant of the level of danger, but also the level of trust they are being given when a parent leaves their child in the care of a school… particularly if that school is specifically for special needs children.
I was proud to see Autism Speaks announce that they were teaming up with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to develop a new program that will provide resources, educate and raise awareness of the dangers of wandering as it pertains to autistic children. Autism Speaks also took part in U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) proposed “Avonte’s Law”, a bill that would start and fund programs to provide voluntary GPS tracking devices for autistic children similar to the programs that have are in place for Alzheimer’s patients.
But that is not enough. We need to address this issue at the national level and I would like for US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to focus on providing children with special needs a safe learning environment in which parents do not have to fear that dropping their child off at school could be the last time they see them. Everything should be on the table and each policy and procedure should be gone over with a fine toothed comb.
No family should have to endure the 109 day nightmare that Avonte’s family has lived these past few months. Please do not let the death of Avonte Oquendo be in vain. Let his legacy be that we learn from this tragic event so that all children will return home from school safely.
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Lou Melgarejo
A married father of three, Lou's oldest daughter Bianca is autistic. She is amazing, beautiful, perfect and has taught Lou more about life, respect and unconditional love than anybody. They have a bond like no other and Lou's only wish for his daughter is that she grows up to be the best Bianca she can be.
Lou Melgarejo

Lou Melgarejo

A married father of three, Lou's oldest daughter Bianca is autistic. She is amazing, beautiful, perfect and has taught Lou more about life, respect and unconditional love than anybody. They have a bond like no other and Lou's only wish for his daughter is that she grows up to be the best Bianca she can be.

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