NYC Passes Avonte’s Law to Install Alarms at Special Needs Schools

A bill has been approved by the New York City Council requiring that doors in schools with special needs programs have audible alarms.  Known as Avonte’s Law, the bill is inspired by the disappearance of 14 year-old Avonte Oquendo, an autistic boy from Queens who was last seen in a surveillance video leaving Center Boulevard School in Long Island City, Queens on Oct. 4.  Three months later, his body was found in College Point along the East River.

According to CBS-TV, Avonte’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city in Queens Supreme Court.  The accusation is that the city Department of Education, the school district’s Police Department, the New York Police Department, and numerous individuals showed negligence in allowing the student to leave the school.  The bill asks the city Department of Education and the Police Department to give the court a list of schools where alarms may be needed.  Schools with severely disabled students will be given priority.

Recently, several children have slipped out of an unattended door at school and were found walking alone.

In testimony in June, Carmen Alvarez, United Federation of Teachers’ vice president for special education, said that learning-disabled kids had a higher incidence of zipping out of  unattended doors, and that schools needed to identify “runners” in advance. “By the time an alarm sounds, it’s already too late.” Alvarez said District 75 schools should have a “comprehensive system of monitoring throughout the day.”

The Brooklyn Eagle reports that Sen. Charles Schumer called for legislation that would provide GPS tracking devices for autistic children.  The Department of Justice agreed, and now, existing grant funds will be used to purchase them for students to use on a voluntary basis.

In a report on PIX11 New York, Allison Yang says that education officials have been concerned because, “no single device can replace the human element.”

“For a large and diverse school system such as ours, there is no one-size-fits-all response that will prevent a student leaving a building without permission,” Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said in a June 12 hearing.

Some of the concerns about the new law include:

•the high cost for purchasing the alarms and their installation

•the alarms do not guarantee future prevention of such tragedies

•there is no substitute for adult supervision

•the alarms may frighten some autistic children

“As you are aware, some children with autism spectrum disorder can be particularly sensitive to environmental stimuli, such as noise,” [ deputy chancellor Kathleen] Grimm said. “We have concerns regarding how the loud sound of a door alarm could affect these students.”

And in an op-ed piece for website The Daily Dot, Ben Branstetter says increased school security could work toward avoiding a case like Avonte’s from happening again.   He explains that the autism spectrum often includes a wandering or “elopement” element.  This activity, if monitored by a GPS device, might might have the unintended result of weakening the more basic preventative measures.

Increased awareness in the general public, and by that he means knowledge of Avonte’s disease and how children are affected by autism, can be an excellent means by which these students can be understood and assisted.  He also reminds his readers that GPS devices can break, be lost, or damaged.

Branstetter concludes:

[There is an]“urgent need to develop interventions to reduce the risk of elopement, to support families coping with this issue, and to train child care professionals, educators, and first responders who are often involved when elopements occur.” Avonte’s Law, if passed, would only perpetuate the stigma that autistic children are uncontrollable, unknowable beasts, and all children—autistic or not—deserve far better.