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Where the System Failed Avonte Oquendo

Oct. 17, 2013 | Beth Arky

As the search for Avonte Oquendo approaches week three, with police trying a new tactic—playing a recording of his mother out of emergency response vehicles in hopes the nonverbal autistic teen will hear it—questions mount over how he could have bolted from his Queens school. Meanwhile, advocates have begun searching for ways to ensure that such an incident doesn't happen again.

Avonte's brother, Daniel Oquendo—who has taken a leadership role in the search effort—met yesterday with Gary Mayerson, a Manhattan civil rights attorney concentrating on autism, to discuss the status of the investigation and security measures that should be implemented. (Autism Speaks and Mayerson & Associates have contributed toward the $70,000 reward money for Avonte's safe return.)

Avonte Oquendo System Failures"I couldn't blame Daniel for being entirely absorbed in his brother's plight," Mayerson says, "but he's not. He's able to look outward to do good and protect other students going forward.

Mayerson outlines three layers of protection. First, there is the student's Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The attorney says a student like the nonverbal Avonte, a known wanderer who has been found in subway tunnels in the past, should have had goals and objectives on his IEP to deal with that issue, which would have included his own aide at the Riverview School. Instead, Avonte was placed in a classroom with one teacher, one aide, and six students. (Wandering, also called eloping or bolting, is a common autistic trait.)

The New York City Department of Education was "clearly on notice that he was a bolter," Mayerson says. "There also could have been a special alerts section saying that he has a history of bolting that is potentially dangerous or life-threatening and he probably does not understand the danger" of leaving school.

Beth Glidden Andersen, who blogs at Maternal Instincts about her 9-year-old son, Nik, who has multiple disabilities including nonverbal autism, agrees with Mayerson's assessment. She commented on Facebook that given that Avonte was known to elope, "there should have been 1:1 supervision full-time.

"There is so much we don't know about Avonte and how he, specifically, functioned in his school environment," she wrote. "My son has many of the characteristics attributed to Avonte; at school he has more independence than he would if we were out in public. But that's because his school is exclusively special-needs students and everyone knows him. They give him opportunities to develop skills in a safe environment."

Mayerson's second point: Avonte's IEP should have had a behavior intervention plan that would tell teachers what to do if he went for the door of the classroom, let alone the school building. Finally, there have to be much-improved security measures in place. "There should be protocols so that people who are leaving the building have the legitimate authority to do so," he says.

The Riverview School—a special-needs program—shares space with a middle school and a high school with typically developing students. The schools share common spaces, including auditoriums, gymnasiums, libraries, and cafeterias. It's believed that Avonte eloped while transitioning between lunch and the classroom.

Mayerson disagrees with New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly's exoneration of the school safety officer who saw Avonte before he bolted. Kelly said they looked at the security videotape and "she directs the young man to go back upstairs [when] he's just at the front door. He goes down the hall and actually exits the building from a side door. You see nothing after this juncture that shows the conduct of the school safety agent was inappropriate or there was any misconduct involved."

But the Oquendo family's attorney, David Perecman, questioned why a side door would be unlocked and unguarded in a school with autistic students. Not only that, "it's an omission issue," Mayerson says. "It's what she didn't do after challenging Avonte and saying 'Where are you going?' She doesn't say, 'Wait a minute, what if this is one of those nonverbal kids?'" In other words, was it simply enough to tell Avonte to stay and to not have some one follow him back to his classroom?

Jennifer Aronson Sellar has had experience with schools like Avonte's: Her nonverbal 7-year-old son, Hugo, who has multiple disabilities including an autism diagnosis, attends such a setting in Brooklyn. She wrote on Facebook that the bigger issue of schools like Riverview is whether staff  outside the special-needs program understands the kids' needs. "Very few people even know what elopement is and that this population is at risk for escape," she writes. "I doubt the guard had any knowledge or training for this particular population."

Also yesterday, advocates at a Google hangout presented by ICare4Autism (The International Center for Autism Research and Education) echoed Mayerson's thoughts. Dr. Joshua Weinstein, the founder of ICare4Autism and Hear Our Voices, a school for autistic children in Brooklyn, said his school has cameras inside and outside the building and in the classrooms, as well as "panic doors" that sound an alarm if a child runs out. He adds that there's always an instructor with each student, walking them in and out of the school, going from activity to activity, and during fire drills, lockdowns, and outings. 

Weinstein advises parents to find out what the safety procedures are at their children's schools, especially if there's inclusion and a wide span of grades. If they find fault with the plan, they need to advocate for change. He adds that the public needs to be aware of autistic behavior, including wandering, and be able to respond and notify the authorities.

Stephen Mark Shore, an ICare4Autism board member and himself on the spectrum, added, "We need to educate both the individual with autism on how to be safe as well as first responders who may encounter someone with autism." Shore has helped the New York Police Department produce a training video so that first responders may better know how to interact with autistic children, teens, and adults.

He also cited the work done by Dennis Debbaudt of Autism Risk & Safety Management, which offers autism training and resources for law enforcement and emergency first responders, as well as parents, educators, and the autism community. For instance, Debbaudt has an autism emergency plan on his site to help caregivers; it also includes a contact form to get as much info possible about the bolter quickly into the hands of first responders.

All the advocates cited GPS tracking technology, including wristbands, as a key way to keep wanderers safe.

As for the 45 minutes to hour it took before the school notified Avonte's family that he was missing, Sharie Manon, director of strategic alliances for ICare4Autism, said that as a mother she'd rather be called early; if it's a false alarm, so be it. Shore added that it's worth exercising "an abundance of caution. If they find [a child] under the couch, looking for a quiet place, that's a good outcome. And in situations where the child has eloped, the earlier we can get on this, the better off everybody will be."

Avonte was last seen wearing a gray striped shirt, black jeans and black sneakers. He is 5-foot-3 and weighs 125 pounds. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Police Department's Crime Stoppers hot line at (800) 577-TIPS.

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kathleentehrani · Oct 19 2013 Report

Thank you for posting the collaborative effort of the ICARE4AUTISM and AUTISM BRAINSTORM Google Hangout. Dr. Joshua Weinstein brought forward an extremely serious issue and the team from ICARE, including Dr. Shore, did an amazing job. It was an honor to be asked to host it via AUTISM BRAINSTORM. It was a pleasure on behalf of AutismBrainstorm (dot) org to be part of this very important conversation. It was certainly a privilege to mention the work of Dennis Debbaudt as well. I would like to add that a PDF of Dennis's "Plan Your Response to an Autism Emergency" is attached to the AUTISM BRAINSTORM article which is linked in the post to the word: "Google Hangout".

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