In the wake of the death of Avonte Oquendo, the 14-year-old autistic boy who disappeared from his Long Island City school in October, city and education officials are grappling with how to prevent students with a tendency to run off from leaving school buildings unattended.
City Councilman Robert Cornegy, Jr., who has kept the focus on the issue, has introduced a bill that would require the installation of alarms on all exit doors in elementary school buildings and in buildings that house District 75 programs.
Carmen Alvarez, the UFT vice president for special education, said the UFT supports the bill but cautioned that targeted door alarms should be just one piece of a more comprehensive school-specific safety plan in every school to protect all children in regular and special education who are prone to running off. She said that schools are already doing a lot of work to protect children who tend to wander.
“By the time an alarm sounds, it’s already too late,” Alvarez testified before the council’s education committee on June 12.
Among the UFT recommendations: identifying students at risk of flight in their Individualized Education Programs; making the entire school staff, from principal to custodian, aware of potential runners and the “triggers” that can prompt them to flee; and, with parental permission, alerting local police precincts to likely runners.
The union also supports giving parents the option of using tracking devices. New York Sen. Charles Schumer has proposed using federal funds to pay for ID bracelets with GPS technology, similar to the devices used with people who have Alzheimer’s disease.
DOE officials testified that the installation of door alarms in buildings should be at the DOE’s discretion.
“There is no one-size-fits-all response that will prevent a student from leaving a school building without permission,” said Kathleen Grimm, the DOE deputy chancellor for operations.
Grimm said the DOE has taken a variety of steps to prevent another tragedy from occurring, including improving school safety plan to better identify students at risk of running, increased video surveillance in selected schools and more staff training.
Grimm, echoing the union’s concerns, cautioned that some children on the autism spectrum have extreme sensitivity to noise. “We have concerns regarding how the loud sound of a door alarm could affect these students,” she said.