Avonte’s Law, a bill proposed by Councilman Robert Cornegy Jr. (D-Brooklyn), was brought before the Education Committee on Thursday and almost every speaker and councilmember seemed on board, except the Department of Education.
“We have some concerns,” DOE deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm said.
Avonte’s Law would require the Education Department to place alarms on all District 75, prekindergarten and elementary school doors to prevent students from running out of the buildings, what the DOE refers to as “eloping.”
In total, the schools that would be required to install the alarms hold approximately 600,000 students.
The bill is named for Avonte Oquendo, the 14-year-old autistic boy who fled the Riverview School in Long Island City last Oct. 4 by running out of an open side-door.
The incident sparked a search across the tri-state area which eventually led to the Rego Park teenager’s remains being found washed ashore in Whitestone.
“We prefer to retain the discretion to decide which tools are appropriate tools in any particular building,” Grimm said before the committee, chaired by Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights).
According to Grimm, the DOE revisited many of its safety protocols for a missing student and made slight adjustments to ensure what happened at the Riverview School does not happen again.
Cornegy said the minor adjustments are not enough.
“I’m asking for a safety net,” he said. “After hearing your testimony, I’m actually a little bit more disturbed than I was coming in.”
Though Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, was highly visible in the media during the search, she did not make an appearance at the hearing. Instead, his grandmother Doris McCoy spoke.
“They’ve held off too long,” she said. “Way before this happened to Avonte, it should have been done.”
But Grimm said alarms cannot replace adult supervision and would not actually stop a child from leaving the building.
Avonte escaped after running past a school safety officer twice. The building’s principal did not order a soft lockdown — despite protocol requiring one — and Fontaine was not alerted until almost an hour after he went missing. Police were not called for approximately 30 minutes.
Grimm added that alarms would be more of a disruption than anything.
“There is no one-size-fits-all response that will prevent a student from leaving a school building without permission,” she said. “We just want to retain discretion to place them where we feel appropriate.”
In addition, the DOE representatives said alarms could be distressing to students with sound sensitivity, which is often associated with autism.
“As you are aware, some children with autism spectrum disorder can be particularly sensitive to environmental stimuli, such as noise,” Grimm said. “We have concerns regarding how the loud sound of a door alarm would affect these students.”
The United Federation of Teachers is also skeptical.
“The bell itself is not going to solve the problem,” Carmen Alvarez, vice president for special education at the union, said. “We just want to make sure that it’s tied into the bigger structure.”
Alvarez emphasized that the UFT is not opposed to the bill but would like the City Council to be cautious.
Councilman Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn, Queens) said school administrators should not be able to opt out of alarms as the DOE is suggesting.
“We don’t allow a landlord to figure out whether or not they want an alarm,” he said. “It’s just there and it saves a lot of lives.”
Since Avonte’s escape, several young children have “eloped” during school hours.
Most recently, a 4-year-old in Brooklyn walked outside. She was found quickly, but the school’s principal, who didn’t want to take any risks, had alarms placed on school doors immediately.
The final price figured out to $1,500 — about $160 a piece — taken out of the school’s safety budget, but Education Chairman Dromm pointed out that with a number of the older school buildings having asbestos within the doors, that price could increase.
“There is something wrong if kids continue to run out of school,” Cornegy said. “A lot of the students don’t want to leave school but they get outside, the door shuts behind them and then they can’t get back in. So the child wanders off in search of a teacher or parent.”
The councilman referenced one incident when a young child’s teacher had been absent. The student left the building in search of the instructor.
Funding for the legislation is included in next year’s budget plan, though Mayor de Blasio has not publicly commented on the bill. The reason for that may be due to the wrongful death lawsuit Fontaine recently filed against the city.
But the bill is expected to pass through the Council without issue as Avonte’s Law has the support of 46 out of 51 members.
The main concern is whether it will be passed in time for implementation to begin this summer.
Cornegy wants alarms to be in place by the start of the school year.