Avonte’s family files suit for $25 million

By Alex Robinson

Avonte Oquendo’s family is ready to take the city to court.

A lawyer representing the boy’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, said she filed a $25 million wrongful death suit against the city and the city Department of Education last Friday.

“They blew it on every single level possible,” her attorney, David Perecman, said. “From the way the school was built without a self-closing door to only having one person watching the kids on lunch breaks.”

Avonte’s remains were found on the shore in College Point in January, three months after the 14-year-old autistic boy vanished from his Long Island City school.

Video footage showed Avonte running down a stairwell through the Riverview School’s halls and past a security guard, before darting out a door that had been left open by an unidentified man.

A report released in March by the special commissioner of investigation for the city’s schools, revealed Avonte’s teacher, Julie Murray, had been warned by Fontaine that the autistic teen was a runner before he disappeared. The report said she then failed to share this information with the school’s administrators.

Murray was listed in the lawsuit as a defendant along with the city, DOE and a number of employees at the Riverview School, at 150 51st Ave. The lawsuit claims the negligence of the defendants was responsible for Avonte’s disappearance.

“This involves a tragic incident and we will review the lawsuit,” a spokesman for the city’s Law Department said in a statement.

Fontaine was waiting for the NYPD to release any additional information about Avonte’s disappearance, which she requested, before she filed the lawsuit. The NYPD only released the documents she had requested in Freedom of Information request when the city’s Medical Examiner’s office concluded its report on the cause of Avonte’s death. It’s findings were inconclusive.

Fontaine also had to wait to be named administrator of Avonte’s estate before going ahead with the lawsuit, Perecman said.

In the wake of Avonte’s death, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced and passed legislation, known as Avonte’s Law, that would provide federal funds for GPS trackers for children with autism.

In addition, a package of bills has been introduced in the City Council to better safeguard students with disabilities such as autism. This includes legislation that would expand Schumer’s legislation to supply funding for GPS trackers for all children with disabilities.

A bill which would require schools to have alarms on exit doors is set to face a public hearing June 12.

Perecman heralded the package of bills, but said more needs to be done. Not a single school employee has lost his or her job or been reprimanded in any way over Avonte’s disappearance, Perecman said.

“The GPS devices are a good idea and the entire package is necessary because they aren’t capable of making the changes that need to be made,” he said.

Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4566.