Negligence and Why Wandering is Low on my List

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.

Short stories about inclusion

As a child, things that were different from expected orders or previous experience were a major issue for me. Truth be told, I still have difficulties with it. But the fear level that basic differences invoked as a child was pretty high. Adjusting to the diversity of the world around me was very scary when I was very little. I didn’t have ways to effectively categorize many unexpected experiences- from someone who always wore pants suddenly wearing skirts to rooms being arranged different from usual- and the level of overwhelm involved was dreadful.

One day a teacher- I believe it was in a pull out for speech and language arts, but I could be wrong- read me a story. It was illustrated, which was good as I hadn’t learned how to read on grade level at that point. It was very short. It asked a “what if?” question. What if everybody dressed the same at all times- everybody wearing brown suits, from old men to babies. On the facing page was a very dull street view of everyone looking the same in the same outfits. The teacher then talked about some of the possible “thens” or consequences: It would be harder to tell people apart; people might have trouble demonstrating their role without task specific gear; there would be fewer opportunities for beautiful things. Enhancing this experience was that I had a visual aversion at the time to the particular shade of brown. She also talked about some things that were a little more complex- for example, people showing their personality in their dress.

She had me look at the page, and it was scary to me in a way that new categories often are. The markers for what they were and what their context was became even more subtle, and that was difficult. Then we came to the next page, where the facing illustration was bright and diverse. A mother pushed a carriage; kids formed teams; old men wore cardigans and middle aged men suits. Seeing those markers made it a lot more obvious what were groups and what were not. The teacher talked about the different benefits of diversity: fresh perspectives; markers, some obvious and some more subtle than I could grasp without help;  beauty; and the ability to get more out of the world. This page was beautiful, more beautiful in light of the monotone of the page before it.

I don’t know for sure what she was intending to teach, but that story or exercise stuck with me. In retrospect, I’m sure it had many little problematic things to it. But what it did for me was important- it taught me that there is strength and, even more, beauty in diversity. Over time, that embracing of diversity developed into a love of all types of diversity- bio diversity in nature; socio-political diversities; diversity of our bodies; diversity of experiences; and yes, eventually neurodiversity. This one very short story opened my little mind up to much larger ideas down the road, ones that would help me to the better in dealing with the world around me. It demonstrated broadly a possibility, and flamed my curiosity about the world around me. It was still difficult, but that curiosity motivated me to see things through.

Lately, I’ve been reading a bit on children’s books. There are some big questions asked- how do we go beyond integration of diverse people in our children’s books to actual inclusion? How do we include without it becoming a “very special story/episode?” How do we get kids to apply these things to their classmates and neighbors? There’s a lot of wonderful discussion across disability advocacy, education, and parenting worlds.

I imagine that doing these things effectively will become more important as educators attempt to follow (to some extent) the recent Department of Education guidance about bullying and students with disabilities. This decision states, in short, that removing the victim is not an effective way to deal with bullying of students with disabilities, and that it could be considered a violation of the student’s right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment according to the department. (You may have encountered these ideas in their abbreviations, FAPE and LRE.) I’m cynical enough to question how well it be put into practice. But I do think that as educators attempt to apply this guidance there will be even more interest in effective inclusive story telling.

Now I know that my story above is a little specific in the details and mechanisms of working with a child like me with some delays in certain types of communication and social comprehension. (I gained quickly after I learned to read, but was delayed in when I began reading. I still have some social comprehension issues though they have improved.) But I believe that the core piece applies across the board- the development of curiosity that is not hindered by fear of the unknown.

So I’d add as a core issue in the discussion of inclusive storytelling “How do we ignite curiosity that the child can build on?” Because curiosity is a tool that can take us so much further-especially when if comes to embracing the possibilities.

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