The search for missing autistic boy Avonte Oquendo came to a heartbreaking end in January, when his remains were found near Powell Cove Boulevard in Queens. A new report released yesterday by the agency in charge of investigating New York City’s public schools shows several blunders in Avonte’s care and supervision. The most serious — the one that’s likely to come up in the lawsuit she is pursuing against the city — is that Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, warned his teacher at his Long Island City special education program that Avonte was likely to run. She requested one-on-one supervision for the boy, which the program at Riverview School, also known as P 277, did not provide. In addition, Avonte’s teacher didn’t inform school administrators that he was likely to try to leave the building.
According to their report, the Special Commissioner of Investigation for New York City Schools (SCI), headed by Commissioner Richard J. Condon, got involved with Avonte’s case on October 7, 2013, four days after he was reported missing, after the NYPD was already searching for the boy.
SCI investigators met with Principal Susan McNulty and Assistant Principal Angela Pomo, who told them that Riverview shares a campus with two other schools, a middle school and a high school, the Academy for Careers in Television and Film. They told SCI investigators that as soon as Avonte was noticed to be missing, at 12:45 p.m., they asked the high school principal, Edgar Rodriguez, who’s in charge of the building, to put the entire building on “soft lockdown” so a better search could be conducted. Rodriguez refused, on the grounds that it would “alarm” his students.
Soon after, Pomo had to call Avonte’s mother and tell her that her son was missing. Fontaine told Pomo that she’d warned Avonte’s teacher, Julie Murray, to keep an eye on her son at all times because he “liked to run.” Murray had sent home a form earlier in the year, asking for more information about each student; under a section for parental questions and concerns, Fontaine wrote, “Safety concerns – Please make sure you keep an eye out he likes to run. Need 1-1 supervisor will leave the building.” Avonte didn’t have his own in-class supervisor; the SCI report states that his individualized education plan didn’t provide one.
Pomo told investigators that Murray never showed them the form; that they didn’t see it, in fact, until Avonte was already missing. When SCI investigators reviewed the security footage from that day, the reason Avonte needed a special supervisor became clear: he slipped away while two teachers were escorting a line of students from one room to another. One of the teachers had her attention focused on another student, while the other was “far behind,” with his slower-walking students. Avonte managed to walk away without either of them noticing and make his way down to the first floor. By 12:38, as a leaked memo from Capital New York showed back in October, he was able to leave the building through a side door.
“An outside camera showed Avonte running out of the building, down the block, and across the street, eventually out of sight,” the report says.
The School Safety Agents on duty at the front desk also appear to have missed an opportunity to stop Avonte. One of them was on break at the time of his disappearance, while the other, Bernadette Perez, told investigators she was busy with another student and couldn’t leave her post. She told investigators she saw Avonte, who she didn’t know, running back and forth several times; she called out “Excuse me,” but he didn’t respond. (Avonte was non-verbal).
A father who was there to pick up his own daughter, who was ill, told SCI that Perez “appeared not to notice the boy walk past the security desk and into the hallway.”
For much of the day, Avonte’s teachers and principals believed that he was still in the building, since Perez had seen him running back and forth several times and no one had seen him leave. That’s why they asked Television and Film principal Edgar Rodriguez to institute a lockdown. Rodriguez told investigators that he refused, to avoid “upsetting” his own students, but maintained that “as he passed staff members in the hallway, he notified them about the missing P 277 student.” Rodriguez eventually called for a lockdown after speaking with an NYPD officer.
The only remaining mystery here is who left the door open that Avonte used to leave the building. A man was caught on tape leaving the building through that door at 12:07 and not closing the door behind him, but no one seems to know who he is. SCI investigators at first thought it was an architect employed by the firm who designed the building; he was identified by a custodian who viewed the tape. But the architect was interviewed; he didn’t look anything like the man on the tape, and hadn’t been at the school that day.
“The investigators visited a number of contractor companies with personnel who were performing work at the Hunters Point Campus building on October 4, 2013,” the report adds, “but no one recognized the male. He remains unidentified.”
SCI has sent the report to the Queens District Attorney, Richard A. Brown, as well as the Department of Education chancellor, the city’s legal department, and the New York State Department of Education. It’s unclear whether anyone will face disciplinary action.
The full report is on the following page.