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Remains found in NYC river could be missing autistic teen
Possible drowning of Avonte Oquendo highlights risk of autism-related 'wandering' incidents
January 18, 201411:00PM ET
Police are investigating whether human remains found along New York's East River this week are those of 14-year-old autistic teen Avonte Oquendo, who walked out of his school more than three months ago and vanished. Oquendo's disappearance sparked intense scrutiny over the way the New York City Department of Education handles special-needs students.
On Thursday, a photography student taking photos at a park discovered what looked like an arm, according to an official with direct knowledge of the case who spoke to The Associated Press. Police also found a torso and legs in the water, along with a shoe and clothing, the official said. The remains were found near the College Point Yacht Club in the Queens borough of New York City, where Oquendo attended the school from which he wandered.
The family's lawyer, David Perecman, confirmed that the jeans and size 5 1/2 sneakers found on the badly decomposed remains resembled what Oquendo was wearing when he was last seen.
Perecman said he spoke to the teen's mother, Vanessa Fontaine, around 2 a.m. He said she was considering the discovery to be just another tip until she hears something more definitive but that the whole situation had "taken a significant toll on her as a human being."
Perecman said the family will wait for DNA test results on the remains, which were taken to the Queens County Morgue and will be examined by the medical examiner's office to determine an identification and cause of death, which could take several days.
Oquendo has been missing since Oct. 4, when he walked out of his school toward a park overlooking the East River. His disappearance sparked a search that included hundreds of officers, marine units and volunteers.
Missing person posters were plastered on lampposts and placed on car windshields throughout the city.
The teen, who is not able to speak, was fascinated with the subway system and officials from New York's transit agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, made announcements on trains for weeks asking for help finding him. Police have also checked every subway station and tunnel.
Mainstreaming and 'wandering'
New York City's Department of Education has received harsh criticism over Oquendo’s case, and former schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott outlined new protocols to staff for when a student has run away. The DOE is also planning to increase security measures at schools, such as installing cameras, enhancing surveillance and cooperation with the New York Police Department.
Some questioned the city’s education reform initiative policies, which involved mainstreaming the nearly 200,000 students with disabilities and integrating them at their local community schools. But the schools’ safety officers often do not have sufficient knowledge of students' disabilities or how to deal with their special needs, which results in a disproportionate number of suspensions among students with disabilities.
The guard who briefly asked Oquendo what he was doing when he saw the child wandering in the Riverview School in Queens didn’t know the teen was severely autistic and couldn’t speak. The nonverbal Oquendo left the building without responding.
Many autistic teens such as Oquendo have a tendency to “wander,” causing them to bolt or run away. This behavior exposes them to dangerous situations, many of which have ended in death. The National Autism Association reported that water and traffic-related incidents are the leading cause of death during such wandering incidents. About 49 percent of children with autism attempt to escape from a safe environment, according to AWAARE Collaboration, a group of non-profit organizations dedicated to preventing autism-related wandering incidents.
The city’s security-focused response to avert future disappearances — without educating security personnel about the students’ disabilities and consequent risks involved — will thus not likely yield the desired results.
“School safety officers do not have any knowledge of whether a student has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan, which is given to students with disabilities),” Johanna Miller, advocacy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, told Al Jazeera in November.
“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.”
Authorities investigated hundreds of tips in New York City and its suburbs. Despite a few false alarms, including an image of a person snapped on a train that resembled the boy, Oquendo has yet to be located.
Lisa De Bode contributed reporting, with The Associated Press.