Today it was announced that DNA results on the remains found this past weekend confirmed they were those of 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo. Avonte, a black, non-speaking Autistic young man, wandered out of his school back in October, launching a massive search. That it comes to an end in this way is distressing, but as the months moved on and the area was blasted with freezing weather seemed more and more inevitable. It is, indeed, a tragedy.
I do hope that you heard about Avonte back when he went missing. I hope you reblogged his image around. I hope you talked about the negligence of his school. Unfortunately, I’ve heard a lot of talk over the past few months calling it a failure of inclusive education, or his wandering out and not coming back an inevitable tragedy. It is neither of those things- and was most certainly not inevitable.
Avonte attended a public school. He was supposed to have a one-on-one staffer, and his school had a security officer. And yet he left- and not out of the front door. He was seen by the Security Officer, but was not kept from leaving the building. Reportedly, the officer asked him where he was going and instead of following him, did nothing after he turned to look at them. The Security officer didn’t immediately go to report that a student had left the building. He didn’t have a note, he didn’t have someone to sign him out of school, there was no reason for the officer to not report to the office immediately. As far as any reports go, the door he left out of wasn’t even alarmed. The school neglected to let the parents know, let alone the cops, for a hour after he left. None of the safety protocols the school is supposed to follow were followed.
These circumstances should worry any parent, regardless of if their child has a disability or not. In Avonte’s case, yes, his motivation was likely one that is often categorized as wandering, and yes he’s someone who is more vulnerable to predation than the average kid his age, but it doesn’t take wandering for a child to go missing. Children and teens might leave (especially at that age) to “skip,” or to engage in more appealing activities. They might be involved in other activities that aren’t appropriate for minors; they might be coerced by others to come with them. Whatever the reason, the vast majority of the steps that were supposed to protect Avonte (with the exception of the one-on-one) were supposed to protect the other kids as well.
There’s a reason, as much of a bummer as it seemed at the time, you needed a note to leave for a doctor’s appointment or what have you. There’s a reason the school nurse didn’t let you just go home when you were sick until they heard from your parents. These measures exist to keep us safe. When they don’t do these things, they aren’t doing their job. Schools become in a state of loco parentis when you or your child is there- they are expected to protect the well being of the minors in their care. They are supposed to provide for the basic safety of their students. While this status is limited- which is why you needed a permission slip if your teacher wanted you to leave the school campus- it does cover those two charges: safety and well being.
While Avonte’s specific circumstances is an incredibly tragic way to have this school’s negligence revealed, it is a negligence for the safety and well being of every student in that school. What happened afterward may be attributable to his wandering behaviors or not, but it wouldn’t have happened if the school had been following the basic safety policies designed to protect all students.
Avonte’s parents get that, and are suing the NY Department of Education because of the school’s negligence. And here’s the thing- they were going to sue even if he had been found alive and well the first week of his disappearance. That they hadn’t pushed forward on it publicly yet was due entirely to them wanting to find their son first. They had their priorities in order- their son first, then dealing with the negligence that led to this tragedy.
I want us to get that too. I want us to push to make sure that schools are following the safety guidelines they are supposed to. I want schools who need funding to follow these basic guidelines, or to repair damaged equipment, get the appropriate funding. I want us to stand by Avonte’s parents while they take on the neglience of this school- and to make sure that any changes made to amend the basic safety of his school are check out and applied to all students. (I wonder, too, if the safety would have been as poorly monitored in a more affluent area of the city.) And I want us to take time to grieve Avonte, a young teen who was failed and died because of all of this. And Not just as a fellow autistic who has had wandering behaviors- as a human being.