Avonte’s Law Update
Avonte’s Law Goes Into Effect in New York City
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio signed Avonte’s Law into effect on August 7, 2014. The enactment imposes new requirements intended to protect special education students. It was passed by the City Council by a 49-0 vote a month earlier.
Update on the Federal Bill
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer has also introduced a federal bill with the same name as the New York City law. The federal Avonte’s Law has a different focus than the new local law passed by Mayor de Blasio, but the ultimate goal is the same: Protecting vulnerable populations from a major source of potential harm.
Both the New York law and the proposed federal law could have a major impact on keeping young and disabled people safe. It is important to know about these laws and the important legal protections they can offer.
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Keep reading for more information about this federal bill.
Avonte Oquendo’s Story
In the United States, there are many laws that bear people’s names. From Meghan’s Laws requiring registration of sex offenders to the Brady Bill requiring federal background checks before firearm purchases, these laws were passed to honor victims failed by the “system.”
Every “apostrophe law” that is named for a victim is a memorial of a tragedy. Avonte’s Law is no different Avonte’s Law aims to protect disabled children while honoring the victim of a tragedy. The law is named for a 14-year-old autistic teen named Avonte Oquendo.
Avonte attended Riverview School—a Long Island City school located in Queens. Unlike most teenagers, Avonte was severely autistic and he was not able to speak. The school was aware of this disability and had a responsibility to provide adequate supervision and a safe environment.
Unfortunately, this did not occur. Video footage from Riverview School shows that an adult left an outside door open on Oct. 4, 2013. A short time after the door was left ajar, Avonte was seen running out of the school building with no one stopping him. This was the last time the young boy was seen alive.
School authorities allegedly took approximately 45 minutes to alert the police to Avonte’s disappearance. When news broke that he was missing, a search was launched not just by the New York Police Department but also by concerned volunteers citywide. Avonte’s mother continued the search for months despite there being no sign of the teenager.
Tragically, the search ended three months later when remains were found near the East River. Avonte’s family blames the school and city for allowing him to walk out unnoticed, and a wrongful death lawsuit was filed by The Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C., to hold the city accountable for the loss of Avonte’s life.
Compensating the family for their tremendous loss will provide a measure of justice for Avonte, but that is not enough. Avonte’s Law will help to ensure that other children will not fall victim to the same tragedy that took the life of this young man.
Department of Education to Assess Need for Alarms on Doors
In New York City, a law was proposed after Avonte’s death that would require alarms to be installed on outside doors at schools. However, the law was modified before being passed and signed by the mayor. According to CBS New York, it was “watered down.”
Rather than mandating that doors be installed, the law as passed requires the Department of Education to evaluate where door alarms are needed. If and only if the DOE determines that a school requires an alarm to ensure student safety, action must be taken.
Schools that are on the list for evaluation include elementary schools and District 75 schools that serve special needs students. The Department of Education is required to complete the evaluations by May 30, 2015. A report must be submitted to the City Council that provides a timeline for alarm installation.
Mayor de Blasio expressed hope in a press release that the “legislation will protect other children from tragedy.” Avonte’s mother also said she is happy with the law, although her family’s questions about what happened to her son have not been answered.
The day of Avonte’s disappearance was not the first time the young man had run away from caregivers. Avonte is also not the only autistic child who is prone to wandering. In fact, a report in The New York Times stated that almost 50% of children with autism wander off. This often occurs in an effort to escape noise, sound, and other sources of overstimulation.
Bodies of water can seem soothing and attractive to autistic individuals, which exacerbates the risks of a disabled person wandering away from supervision. The consequences are all too often tragic. CBS New York reports that since 2011, a total of 42 disabled people have died as a result of wandering.
Alarms on school doors would allow school officials to become aware much more quickly when a child has left, or attempted to leave, a building. Prompt action could help save lives and Avonte’s Law could make a real difference for kids throughout New York City.
Federal Plan Includes GPS Monitoring Devices
Senator Schumer’s proposed Avonte’s Law would make possible the provision of GPS tracking devices. The devices would be available for both autistic children as well as for others who have a tendency to bolt away from caregivers. The federal program would be similar to an existing program that tracks seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s. Parents and caregivers would have the option of choosing whether or not to use the GPS devices.
The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has made Sen. Schumer’s plan possible. The DOJ agreed to allow existing grant money to be used in providing funds for voluntary GPS tracking devices. With these devices, a parent or other caregiver can potentially find a child who has wandered, hopefully before anything bad occurs.
Protecting all children is a top priority, and the two different versions of Avonte’s Law could both make a big difference in reducing the risks that autistic children face. Avonte Oquendo’s story is a tragic one, but the lessons learned from his untimely death and the new laws passed in his honor may help to save many more lives.