Avonte’s law one step closer to passing two years after boy went missing

By Tom Momberg

Supporters of an effort to reform the ways that public schools safeguard children with autism rallied at Hunters Point South Park Saturday two years from the disappearance of Avonte Oquendo on Oct. 4, 2013.

Oquendo, who was a student at The Riverview School in Long Island City, left the school building during a regular school day. It was later discovered that the 14-year-old boy with autism had drowned, probably after heading into the East River across the street from school. His body was found washed up in College Point in January 2014.

Members of the Queens community rallied on the anniversary last year as well. In the name of their mission, the group’s March for Safety is an attempt to turn some heads.

“We are trying to make everyone is aware that schools have to be accountable for their students’ actions,” Oquendo’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, said.

The growing advocacy effort, fueled by an ongoing lawsuit by the boy’s family against the city, has spurred the city to boost security and training at its schools as well as pushed lawmakers to pass a federal law named after Oquendo.

The bill, introduced by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), would allocate $10 million in federal funding to institute a program to supply free tracking bracelets or devices to be stitched into clothing of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other mental disabilities. The police would then be able to track them via GPS if they disappear.

“The fact that (Fontaine) is continuing to fight makes me so proud to stand with her. In fact, Miss Fontaine was my guest at President Obama’s State of the Union earlier this year,” Schumer told the rally. “I invited her to draw attention to the issues—to let the senators and congressmen know how we had to get something done, how she didn’t want what happened to her son to happen to hundreds of others, which it will if we don’t pass this law.”

Actually, Avonte’s Law just got its first sponsor in the Senate from the other side of the aisle: U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

Schumer said Burr’s support is likely to help the bill pass in the Senate, which could then make bipartisan support for it in the House more likely.

Fontaine’s family lawyer, David Perecman, said there were four goals in the mission to remember Oquendo, so his death would not be in vain.

“First, the city of New York must complete the alarms. We understand they are doing their job and hopefully they will complete it,” he said.

Second, “We’re hopeful the city will tell us what they have done in the way of training the Department of Education and the Police Department, because we need to know they are being trained to deal with special needs children like Avonte,” Perecman added.

Then, he continued, “We have to garner enough support so Sen. Schumer’s Avonte’s Law will get passed and signed into law.”

And in concluding, Perecman said, “the Department of Education and the School Safety Division need to change their attitude about this problem. They need to understand these children can and should be protected.”

Reach reporter Tom Momberg by e-mail at tmomberg@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.