BY JACKIE STRAWBRIDGE
Avonte’s Law met resistance from the DOE in a City Council hearing last Friday.
This bill is named for Avonte Oquendo, the 14-year-old austistic student who was found dead after he went missing from PS 277 in Long Island City last winter. It would require the installation of alarms at the entrances and exits of all City special needs elementary schools.
Among the DOE’s main concerns stated at the public hearing were the effects of a loud alarm on autistic students within the building, the potential need to frequently deactivate the alarm throughout the day and disruption of principal autonomy.
“While a one size fits all solution may not ensure the safest environment at each of our schools, we share the Council’s strong commitment to improving the safety of all our students at all our schools, including the potential need for more door alarms,” DOE spokesman Harry Hartfield said.
“We are reviewing the legislation and working closely with the City Council,” Hartfield added.
Oquendo’s family filed a wrongful death suit against the City and nine school officials in late May. They seek $25 million in damages.
“I would probably agree with the concept that one size does not fit all,” said David Perecman, who represents Oquendo’s family in the lawsuit. “But the question is then who [gets the alarm systems]? And what are we going to do? And are [the DOE] going to really take action, or are they going to talk, and talk, and talk, and talk, and banter around solutions, until everybody forgets about this and nothing gets done?”
Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), chair of the education committee and a former elementary school teacher, said, “I support the use of alarms but I think the legislation needs to be expanded somewhat.”
Dromm delineated a number of additional measures that would strengthen the legislation, including stop signs on doors along with staff development. He added that he believes the DOE’s concern for an individual school’s right to choose its own protective measures is “legitimate.”
Lori McIlwain, executive director of the National Autism Association, said, “Our organization supports the need for alert mechanisms for a lot of the kids out there who cannot speak. This is a way of speaking for them when they are in trouble.”
Like Dromm, McIlwain believes the legislation should be expanded to include other measures. She similarly pointed to staff training, while noting specifically that educators “need to ensure the appropriate amount of adult supervision [and] mostly they need to find what’s triggering the behaviors and address those reasons.”
McIlwain, however, said she believes that alarms should be installed uniformly.
“I think it’s a necessary support,” she said. “It should be as important as a fire alarm.”
PS 277 could not be reached for comment as of press time.
Reach Jackie Strawbridge at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JNStrawbridge.