DOE comes out against Avonte’s Law at hearing

By Alex Robinson

City Department of Education officials criticized a proposed bill last week that would require schools with disabled and elementary students to install alarms on their doors.

The bill, known as “Avonte’s Law,” was introduced to the City Council in the wake of the death of Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old autistic boy who disappeared from his Long Island City school in October.

“For a large and diverse school system such as ours, there is no one-size-fits-all response that will prevent a student from leaving a school building without permission,” Deputy Schools Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said at a hearing held by the Council’s Committee on Education for the bill last week.

Grimm listed a number of safety procedures the DOE has in place and explained the agency had conducted a comprehensive review of its emergency protocols since Avonte’s disappearance. She said door alarms may be a viable option for some schools, but not all.

“No single device can replace the human element,” she said.

Installing door alarms at all schools that have young and disabled students could cost as much as $9 million, officials said.

Grimm said the DOE should have the discretion to choose which schools are equipped with door alarms.

Councilman Robert Cornegy (D-Brooklyn), who introduced the bill, said the DOE’s plan of action and protocols have not been enough to ensure the safety of young and disabled students since eight children have walked off school properties since Avonte vanished.

“What I’m asking for here is a safety net to protect all children in the building by alerting the responsible adults of an emergency,” he said.

The DOE has come under fire for Avonte’s disappearance since the boy’s remains were found on the College Point shore in January. Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, has filed a $25 million wrongful death claim against the city and DOE, for failing to prevent his disappearance.

Video footage showed Avonte darting down a stairwell, through the school’s halls and past a security guard, before running out an open door.

A recent report by the special commissioner of investigation for the city’s schools revealed Avonte’s teacher at the Riverview School, at 1-50 51st Ave., had been alerted that the boy was a runner but failed to share that information with the school’s administration.

The day after Avonte’s funeral, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation that would expand funding for GPS trackers for children with autism.

A package of bills designed to protect autistic children has also been introduced to the Council in addition to Cornegy’s legislation. This includes a bill which would expand Schumer’s legislation to include funding for GPS trackers for students with all disabilities. Now that Cornegy’s bill has passed through committee and faced a hearing, it can be brought before the Council for a vote.

Avonte’s grandmother, Doris McCoy, attended the hearing to support Cornegy’s bill and push for additional safety measures. She suggested disabled children be required to wear badges while at school so that school employees will be able to immediately recognize children with special needs.

“Cameras and alarms should be on at all times during school hours,” she said.

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