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Avonte's Law Addresses School Safety for Children with Special Needs

September 22nd, 2014

Avonte’s Law, which calls for audible alarms on school building doors, was passed by New York City Council and signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio in August. The law is named for Avonte Aquendo, a 14-year-old boy with autism who went missing from his school in Queens and was later found dead. Avonte’s Law is one action among many that are needed to protect students with special needs.

The new law requires the New York City Department of Education to evaluate the need for audible door alarms and install them where they are deemed necessary. The evaluation and a timeline for installation must be completed by May 30, 2015. The law as passed is not as strong as the original proposal, to simply require audible alarms on school doors.

On October 4 of last year, Avonte Aquendo went missing from the Center Boulevard School in Long Island City, Queens. Avonte had severe autism and was not able to speak. Volunteers participated in a massive search for the boy. His body was found in College Point along the East River three months later.

Mayor de Blasio said that the legislation would protect other children from tragedy. Vanessa Fontaine, Avonte’s mother, said she supported the new law, but the family still had unanswered questions. She filed a wrongful death lawsuit against several city agencies in June.

Avonte’s Law is one practical response to the tragedy, but more action is needed to keep children with special needs safe. Children with autism in particular may be prone to bolting or wandering, but children with other special needs often require additional supervision as well. On September 15, a 15-year-old girl with an emotional disabilities and ADHD disappeared from her school in Brooklyn, leading to a search by family members and police. Thankfully, Nashaly Perez was found safe, but her mother said that officials at the special needs school did not take the disappearance seriously enough. How many times does a child with a disability have to disappear from school before New York City takes strong and effective action?

Every child with special needs has different needs, and parents must ensure that a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) reflects the level of supervision that is needed, and that school officials are aware of the requirements and follow them. However, Avonte’s case is one tragic example that reveals that school officials do not always follow through on instructions in a student’s IEP. Avonte’s IEP included a warning from his mother that he needed one-on-one supervision, because he liked to run and would leave the building. An investigation showed, however, that no one who was with Avonte the afternoon he ran had been informed of that tendency.

Avonte’s Law represents a step in the right direction, but school officials and teachers can and should do more to protect children with special needs.

 

Learn more about special needs planning and special needs advocacy by visiting www.specialneedsnewyork.com.


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Voluntary Tracking Devices Proposed for Children with Autism

March 3rd, 2014

Senator Charles Schumer has proposed legislation that would fund voluntary tracking devices for children with autism, to address the problem of wandering.

The proposed legislation is called “Avonte’s law,” after Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old boy with autism who was found dead after he disappeared from his school in Queens.

The law would increase funding for a Department of Justice program that provides grants to police departments and other groups that allow them to supply tracking devices for people with Alzheimer’s disease. The law would allocate $10 million to expand the program to cover children with autism. The tracking device cost between $80 and $90 to purchase and a few dollars per month to operate. Interested parents would have free access to the devices, which can be sewn into clothing or worn around the wrist.

Use of the devices would be the decision of the parents, and local governments would decide exactly how they would be implemented. The devices can be programmed in different ways, for instance to alert authorities automatically when a child leaves a certain perimeter such as school grounds, or to become activated only when authorities are notified.

Avonte Oquendo disappeared from his school by the Queens waterfront in October. He had no prior history of running away. Due to severe autism, he was not able to communicate verbally, making him more vulnerable to danger. The New York Police Department, along with the boy’s family and volunteers, searched for him by every available means. Bloodhounds were put on the scent, divers searched the East River, and neighbors and subway riders saw the boy’s face on posters and heard announcements regarding his disappearance. His remains were discovered along the East River shoreline in January. DNA testing confirmed the identity of the body, and an investigation continues into the cause of death.

According to Sen. Schumer, the tracking equipment is “a high-tech solution to an age-old problem.” Research indicates that almost 50 percent of children with autism are prone to wandering or bolting, often to get away from noises that overstimulate them. Many are drawn to bodies of water because they seem soothing, which creates a significant drowning risk.

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