It was an extremely sad day when the country received the news that DNA tests confirmed that the remains that washed up on a Queens beach were indeed Avonte Oquendo’s. It hit home for parents and educators everywhere, and we felt such compassion for Avonte’s family and the suffering that they now endure.
The question that kept being asked was, “How did this happen?” Unfortunately, the most that we have to go on is a few pieces of surveillance footage which shows Avonte running through the halls of the school, and then finally out the door. The additional questions of how he was allowed to be out of his classroom unattended and what he was possibly running from have not yet been answered as the investigation is on-going. However, the one thing that is an accepted fact by all is that there was an extreme error made on the part of the school and that this could have been avoided.
No doubt the school has complete responsibility in this matter. Anyone who works in a school, especially for children with special needs is a caregiver first. These children are in that setting specifically because they require enhanced support and assistance. Their safety should always come first, as they are often not capable of keeping themselves safe. Everything has to be considered as potentially dangerous, and children should always be attended. A qualified adult should always be in close proximity to their students and available to intervene in a hazardous situation. Of course there are times when a child is pulled from the room for various therapies. During those situations, it is the responsibility of the classroom staff to pay attention to who is taking the child and keep an eye on timing. That is, if the staff know that a therapy session is 30 minutes they can then expect the child back at a specific time. If they get pulled a second time for an additional therapy session, the classroom staff should be made aware so that they can know when to expect the child back into the classroom. Additionally, if the whole class is moving from one area of the school to another, doing a head count while keeping in mind who is in therapy, who is absent, and who may have been pulled for bathrooming, helps keep tabs on where all students are. Being proactive and communicating keeps everyone on the same page.
Following this horrible occurrence, the Department of Justice agreed to fund voluntary GPS tracking devices to help keep children with autism, and others who are prone to running off, safe in their daily activities. Senator Chuck Schumer proposed this idea and calls it, “Avonte’s Law”. The federal government already provides funding for similar devices for people with Alzheimer’s Disease. Schumer stated, "We know how to do it, we've seen it done - it works.” The device can be sewn into clothing, worn as a wristband, hooked into the child’s belt loop, or placed in the shoe laces. The devices run about $80-$90, and then a few dollars each month for monitoring service. Experts purport that this cuts the time it takes to find a missing child by 95%. This is a great solution for families who can afford it. Another solution although not as effective as GPS tracking, is a medical alert bracelet. The bracelet can be engraved with the child’s name, emergency contact information, and/or pertinent allergies. These run from very inexpensive to very expensive, depending on the type of bracelet. However it could be an effective precaution for children who are moving from place to place daily.
Moved by the terrible tragedy, graphic designer and tattoo artist Lavan Wright created a moving tribute. It depicts Avonte as a smiling angel with large wings, holding a puzzle piece (the symbol for autism) with one eye looking up at him sadly. Danny Oquendo, Avonte’s brother, posted it on many social media websites and expressed gratitude to Wright for the sketch. It was appropriate depiction of the boy who everyone already referred to as “an angel”. My own heart goes out to his family, and though it won’t bring him back, I hope the people responsible are brought to justice.