Avonte Oquendo: a tragic lesson in safety at school

Avonte Oquendo: a tragic lesson in safety at school

Yesterday I saw a tweet of one of the people I follow with @autitecture about measures to be taken in New York City schools to prevent another tragedy such as the death of 14 year old Avonte Oquendo. In October 2013 this autistic boy slipped by the front security desk to do what he liked most: running. Probably he had spotted a nearby park to run to; on security camera’s he was seen running in that direction. Like many autistic children he might have been attracted by the parks waterside which was closed off by planks but could be reached a bit further down the path. There he might have fallen or otherwise gotten into the water and drowned. A few months later his body was found at a spot which agrees with this reconstruction.
This I read in a detailed account of both the events of that tragic day but also of Avontes life. He nearly didn’t speak and only played with his brothers, and even that wasn’t easy.  He was struggling with his motor skills, couldn’t tie his shoelaces. He didn’t read or write and didn’t take part in math-lessons. His mother, a nurse, however refused to call him ‘severely autistic’ because he hardly had any behavioral problems, could handle an iPad and liked things such as shopping and helping in the kitchen.

In elementary school he had an IEP (individual education program) and was never in a class with more than six children. He needed constant supervision, among other things because he would run.
When he went to high school, his mother had to fill out a form on which she had written “Questions or concerns that I have include. Safety concerns – Please make sure you keep an eye out he likes to run. Need 1:1 supervisor. Will leave the building.”
Weeks later a dozen or so children went down three flights of stairs in a more or less unruly string, giving Avonte the opportunity to flee. The supervisor of that group hadn’t been told of Avontes flight-risk. Down in the hall Avonte profited from a brief lapse in the attention of the front security person to leave the building.

As is often the case around accidents, many things went wrong at the same time. One was that the security person said she had seen Avonte go up the stairs. So the school was locked down and searched first, loosing an hour of precious search time.
The measures which will be taken by the end of this year, consist of installing 21,000 audible door alarms at New York City schools.  97% of the schools had asked for this, the remainder already had security systems in place.
Furthermore the municipal law – called Avontes law – requires the Department of Education to survey all schools and evaluate the need for safety measures including audible alarms. I hope this means the way the schools communicate about this type of risks will also be reviewed and improved.

What impressed me when I was visiting the Workhome of the Dr. Leo Kannerhuis for my book ‘Een wankele wereld’ (‘A wobbly world) was that all staff members knew everything about all residents. They would convene daily to review the details of the day. Maybe this system isn’t feasible in a school with many special kids. On the other hand there are technological possibilities to keep anyone involved with a certain student up to date on his or her particularities.

After reading both articles, I added a few sentences to the theme ‘demarcation’, inserting references to both sources mentioned here. The safety issue I mentioned briefly there but not in the context of schools. Also I added notes to the theme ‘safety’ which is still somewhere ‘in the pipeline’ waiting to land on the site.
Also I looked at which recommendations fitted this subject best. Around schools that would be recommendation 9 – ‘Entrance safe and inviting’ which is not yet on line. Variants of this recommendation will be made for treatment, and long-stay homes. In those contexts there is more of a dilemma between the safety on one hand and opportunities for social contact with people outside. This is less so for schools because students already do participate in society under their parents guidance, when not at school.
The future recommendation 13 – ‘Safe playground’ has a bearing on this subject as well. Unless playgrounds are located within the outer walls of a school, measures should be taken to prevent students like Avonte to wander off into the world.
In the garden or outside area of a home similar but slightly different concerns present themselves.  Those will be dealt with in recommendation 12 – ‘Garden – safety and accessibility’.


See message in CTV News.
detailed account
by Robert Kolker in New York Magazine, March 30, 2014
Kannerhuiswankele wereld
Flip Schrameijer, Een wankele wereld. In het Workhome, een woon- werkgemeenschap voor mensen met autisme. Doorwerth, Dr. Leo Kannerhuis, 2007.