Remembering Avonte Oquendo

A few days ago I was walking by a school and I heard what sounded like door alarms going off. Usually alarms indicate an alert to impending danger that creates a sense of urgency to protect oneself and others. In this case, however, everything (from the outside looking in) appeared to be business as usual. Surely something must be wrong. Clearly I wasn’t the only one hearing this glaring horn-like noise, was I?

I walked on a little bit further down the block and then looked back to see if anyone had come to attend to whatever the alarm was indicating. Sadly, I saw nothing. My thoughts immediately went to Avonte Oquendo, the reason for the door alarms in the first place. For those of you who may not know, Avonte was a boy with autism who attended a school in Queens and eloped from the school grounds. After a three-month massive manhunt, the remains of his body were found in the East River.

In response to Avonte’s death, as well as another boy named Kevin Curtis Wills who drowned in Iowa, the U.S. Senate passed “Kevin and Avonte’s Law,” which provides funds to schools to protect children with developmental disabilities from wandering off.

“I only hope the Department of Education and the city of New York take the sorely needed steps to properly care for all their students, especially the ones with special needs,” Avonte’s mom Vanessa Fontaine said in a recent Daily News article covering this notorious case.

In that same article, a New York City Department of Education spokesperson stated that “the Department of Education has taken a number of steps and is dedicated to taking every measure possible to prevent something like this from occurring again.”

But there I was, hearing the door alarms blaring  from a school — and no one doing anything about it. This negligence represents a blatant disregard and disrespect for the life of Avonte Oquendo and the tragedy of his avoidable death. More and more it seems to me that, in all facets of life, some lives are just valued more than others. The lives of autistic children aren’t treated with the delicacy and special attention that they require. Those alarms just keep ringing in my psyche. Should I have gone into the school? Should I have called the police? Was a child in danger?

I don’t want to see another news report about a missing child.

I am not a special education teacher. I don’t teach in District 75. However, I am responsible for all students. That’s just how I feel and, to some extent, I believe that all teachers feel this way. We are the champions and advocates of children who can’t defend themselves. The adults in their lives bear that responsibility — and not just during Autism Awareness Month.

What that looks like in deed, not just in word, is that all staff working in a NYC school must enter and exit through designated doors at all times. I know that sometimes it is inconvenient to walk all the way around the school building to go to the parking lot when there is a closer door. I’m guilty of opening that door, too, and just walking nonchalantly to my car with little to no regard to the alarm that I just set off. But those alarms are on the doors for a reason. We don’t want another parent or loved one to experience the deep grief that Avonte Oquendo’s family is experiencing,  a pain that may numb a bit but never completely go away. I won’t be the teacher who in any way contributes to the elopement of a child, autistic or not,  from my school.

In honor of Avonte Oquendo, a child who I never met but love as if I had, and all of the tens of thousands of students with special needs who are educated in NYC, please join me in keeping them safe by not opening locked, alarmed school doors. If you do so, you’re not just breaking the law but committing a dangerous and selfish act with consequences that are greater than we as a society can endure.

What do you think?

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