Probe: Errors let autistic boy slip from NY school

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Associated Press

Posted on March 27, 2014 at 4:02 PM

Updated Thursday, Mar 27 at 8:33 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A tragic confluence of errors including a school safety agent being distracted by a hug and a principal refusing to order a lockdown led to an autistic boy's disappearance from his school and his death, an investigator said Thursday.

A door left open by an unknown visitor at the Queens school and a teacher's failure to pass on a warning by 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo's mother that he might wander also contributed to his death last October, according to the report by Richard Condon, the special commissioner of investigation for city schools.

Avonte's mother, Vanessa Fontaine, said she was outraged that the form she gave her son's teacher saying he might run away was ignored.

"You fill that out assuming that she's asking this question because she wants the information to share with other teachers to help your child out," Fontaine said. She added, "Someone has to pay for this mistake."

The investigator's report did not recommend any disciplinary action but referred the findings to city and state education officials and to the Queens district attorney's office, which said it was reviewing the matter.

The city Department of Education was studying the report and is committed to working to prevent a similar tragedy, spokesman Devon Puglia said. The department said it has moved to enhance security procedures through improved training and use of equipment such as two-way radios.

Avonte, who couldn't speak, attended a school for special-education students that shares a building with two other schools. His Oct. 4 disappearance led to a massive search by police and volunteers, but his decomposed remains were found in the nearby East River in January.

The report described how Avonte broke away from his classmates after lunch.

School safety agent Bernadette Perez told investigators she saw a boy in the lobby but did not know he was a special-needs student. Perez said she called out twice, "Excuse me!" but the boy did not respond. She said she could not chase him because she could not leave the front desk unstaffed.

Perez told investigators she remembered seeing the boy head back upstairs, so when Avonte was not in class she thought he was still in the building.

But the father of another student told investigators he saw a boy walk past as Perez was distracted by a hug from his daughter.

Once Avonte was determined to be missing, investigators said, an assistant principal for his school requested a soft lockdown to facilitate a search. But Edgar Rodriguez, the principal of a high school in the building, refused to declare a lockdown for fear of alarming students, investigators said.

Teacher Julie Murray told investigators she had sent a form to parents and Avonte's mother had returned it, saying, "Please make sure you keep an eye out he likes to run." But Murray said she never notified administrators.

The investigators said a video showed a man leaving the school building through a side door, not closing the door behind him, and half an hour later Avonte walking out through it. No one has been able to identify the man.

Avonte's family has filed a notice of claim to sue the city over his disappearance.

"The city of New York is as obviously at fault in this particular incident as it could possibly be," family lawyer David Perecman said.

Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals, did not comment on whether Rodriguez was at fault in Avonte's disappearance but called his death "an enormous tragedy" and said safety procedures should be revisited frequently.

Gregory Floyd, the president of Local 237 of the Teamsters, which represents school safety agents, said Perez had no way of knowing Avonte was a special-needs child.

The United Federation of Teachers said it was reviewing the report.

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Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela contributed to this report.

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