A mother in Atlanta, Georgia blamed a middle school for her 12-year-old son’s disappearance. The woman’s son, Jonathan Hilliard, is autistic. Attorney at Law David Perecman understands her frustration and urges schools to do more to protect children with special needs.
At the end of the school day in Georgia, Jonathan decided to walk home from school, which is more than four miles away. His mother, Catrina Hilliard, said she found him walking nearly two miles away from the Memorial Middle School’s campus. The family was alerted after the boy’s teacher called his father because the school knew he had not boarded his school bus. Jonathan was found walking on a “winding road about to cross a narrow bridge with a low railing and no sidewalk,” reported Fox News (11.13.14).
This event comes after similar incidents in New York, all of which also occurred during a transition period at school.
“There seems to be gaps in the protocol covering the supervision of special needs children at a number of schools,” said Perecman. “However, schools must provide reasonable and necessary supervision for them, especially during transition periods. Special needs children have challenges with safety awareness and this can result in potential harm or injury.”
In October, Dyasha Smith, 21, a student with autism choked on a muffin at her school in Brooklyn, New York at lunchtime, said The New York Times (10.29.14). Before her death, Dyasha’s mother had let the school know that they needed to cut up her daughter’s food.
In September, Nashaly Perez, 15, a special needs student in Brooklyn wandered off from her New York City school and was found unharmed three days later at her friend’s house, reported The Wall Street Journal (9.18.14). Nashaly walked out a back door during lunchtime.
In January, Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old autistic student, was tragically found in the East River months after he disappeared from his school in Queens after lunch, The Wall Street Journal said.
Perecman, the attorney who represented the families of Nashaly Perez, Avonte Oquendo and Dyasha Smith, said in all cases school officials lost track of students who, by law, require constant supervision. A school appointed para-professional was supposed to be by the side of each of these children at all times.
“Jonathan’s disappearance from school shows that these types of crises are not only confined to New York,” said Perecman.
Jonathan had been talking about walking home from school and his parents said they alerted school officials to his thoughts.
His parents said when their son “says something, he means it.” A wandering and elopement survey by the Interactive Autism Network (IAN), found that approximately half of parents of children with autism reported that their child are prone to wandering away from a safe environment. Among these families, close to 50% said that their child went missing long enough to cause significant concern about safety.
“In New York and across the United States, schools have a duty to meet the needs of all children. If they fail to fulfill that duty, they may be held liable for any resulting damages,” said Perecman. “Thankfully, the incident involving Jonathan Hilliard did not end in tragedy.”
The Fox News story cited is “Autistic boy wanders off from school.”