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NEW YORK — On a cold November evening, 47 days after Avonte Oquendo was reported missing from the Riverview School in Long Island City, Queens, a small group of NYPD officers huddled indoors, talking in front of this school’s main entrance.
Down a long hall was the side exit through which Avonte ran on Oct. 4. He has not yet been found.
Next to the officers was the school’s front desk, manned by a guard. On the desk, a life-sized picture of the shirt the 14-year old autistic boy was wearing the day he disappeared was affixed to poster board. Behind the poster of the gray striped shirt was one of the ubiquitous “Missing” fliers, showing a picture of Avonte’s face and an offer of a $95,000 reward for his return.
Increased security measures are just one of the ways the city Department of Education intends to rectify what has been referred to as a “series of mistakes” by David H. Perecman, a lawyer who has filed a claim against the city on behalf of Avonte’s family. Perecman could not be reached for comment on this article.
But whose mistake exactly is up for debate. Avonte’s disappearance has subjected the city’s education department to intense scrutiny over the way it handles special-needs students.
It has been one year since the city launched a special education reform initiative known as A Shared Path to Success. A key policy change was to mainstream the estimated 23,000 District 75 students, as well as the roughly 170,000 public school students who have an Individualized Education Plan, or an IEP, which is given to students with disabilities. Not every student with an IEP is classified as a District 75 student, or students with the most severe disabilities.
“The primary goal of the reform is to educate significantly students with special education needs in their community schools so they have the same access to education as students in general education,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New York.
Moroff said mainstreaming is the right direction for the city to be headed, but notes “we’re not there yet.” She sited statistics she obtained from the DOE and NYSED that only 5 percent of kids in self-contained special education settings graduate from high school.
The city’s education department would not verify these statistics, nor would it comment on specifics relating to Avonte’s case.
In November, school’s Chancellor Dennis Walcott sent a memo to principals outlining protocols for when a student has run away from assigned staff. The DOE plans to increase training of school safety officers to understand the needs of District 75 students, and to strengthen their safety and emergency readiness in all school buildings. The department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development plans to continue to work in collaboration with the New York Police Department, and to increase security measures to include two-way radios, video surveillance and the use of panic buttons.
But some see this type of guard-oriented emergency response as a failure to see a systemic problem at play in the city’s public school system.
“School safety officers do not have any knowledge of whether a student has an IEP,” said Johanna Miller, advocacy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “We don’t advocate that the DOE shares these records with the cops, but there’s a gap in how the adults in the building can protect students with special education needs.”
Miller said another issue at hand is the high disciplinary rates for students with special needs.
The NYCLU has done comprehensive reporting using statistics obtained from the DOE, through Freedom of Information Act requests, and independent agencies.
“The most blunt statistic is that students with IEPs are suspended twice as often as general education students,” Miller said. “Black students with IEPs represent 14 percent of suspensions and only 6 percent of enrollment.”
The city’s reform initiative lists 13 IEP-classifiable disabilities, including deafness, emotional disturbance, learning disabilities and autism. The IEPs — which are assessed by an IEP team, the teacher, the student’s parent, and any related service provider — are readdressed at least once a year.
“Many types of misbehaviors can result in a zero-tolerance response, meaning the student is actually pushed out of the system rather than disciplined within the educational system,” Miller said of the suspensions. She added that, since 2011, the DOE has been required to provide data on suspensions and arrests twice a year, and the NYPD to provide numbers four times a year. The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.
'It's nobody's fault'
Avonte reportedly has an IEP that requires him to attend a class with one teacher and one paraprofessional for every six students.
Rima Izquierdo, 28, of Parchester Bronx, has a 7-year-old autistic son named Darius whose IEP also dictates a 6-to-1 teacher and paraprofessional ratio.
“My child was a runner, probably like Avonte,” Izquierdo said. “They look for when you’re not paying attention and then they run.”
Darius attends District 75 School P723X in the Bronx. Like the Riverview School, Darius’ school is what is referred to by the city as a co-located school, sharing the grounds of general education school.
“I really like the school,” said Izquierdo, who also has a 21-month-old son who has been diagnosed with severe autism. An undergrad student studying psychology at Mercy College, she is happy with the education her son is receiving. “They’re very enthusiastic, very family-based to include the children to having the most normal life as possible.”
Izquierdo said she isn’t concerned with her son’s safety at the school.
“They have a security guard right at the entrance,” she said. “There’s only one entrance.”
Like Avonte, Darius is nonverbal. Izquierdo has worked closely with his IEP team to tailor his speech therapy to have a more verbal approach.
“I need my son to learn, even it it’s to scream something, any kind of expressive language,” she said, noting that her desire for her son to communicate has been exacerbated by Avonte’s disappearance. “We try to push his communication a little bit, and that may have been influenced by Avonte.”
At the Riverview School, an employee who works at the site of the school and knows the school safety officers, described the scene the day Avonte went missing.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” said the employee last week while standing in front of the side exit through which Avonte ran. The employee didn’t want to be identified for fear of repercussions.
The employee, who is very familiar with the school building, said it has five stories and five exits. The Department of Education would not comment on specifics of the case, and could not confirm this layout.
“Right now the security is tight,” said the employee, who said the school went from having two safety agents to five or six. “If anybody opens the side door apart from the main entrance, an alarm sounds.”
Looking out at the East River waterfront and the Manhattan skyline, the employee expressed concern over finding Avonte. Asked if there was still hope, now almost two months later, the employee said, “I don’t know. This place is big.”