School Called 911 Almost One Hour After Autistic Teen Went Missing: Sources
QUEENS — It took almost an hour for officials at the school attended by 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo, an autistic child who has been missing for a week, to call the police after he ran away, police sources said.
The revelation came as the NYPD intensified its search for the Rego Park teen, who can't speak, dispatching an army of officers as well as the harbor and aviation units to look for him in addition to family, friends and neighbors who canvassed the area.
A reward for information leading to Avonte's whereabouts was also increased to $50,000 and posters with his face and description were plastered around the city as well as in subway stations.
Avonte was last seen on surveillance footage running away from the Riverview School, at 1-50 51 Ave. in Long Island City at 12:38 p.m. last Friday. The school’s principal was notified about 2 minutes later, sources said.
Nearly an hour after that, at 1:31 p.m., the school made a 911 call. It was unclear who at the school made that call. The family was notified about 10 minutes later, sources said.
In a notice of claim seeking $25 million — the family alleged that the school for students with special needs — which is located in a building with two other schools that opened this fall — failed to properly supervise Avonte and that it was not timely in notifying them as well as the police. The notice is the first step toward filing a lawsuit.
David Perecman, a lawyer for the family, said that Avonte possibly got lost when he and his classmates were being transferred from lunch to their classroom and because a security guard didn't realize he was disabled.
He also said that the teen walked past a security guard at the exit of the school. The guard, according to Perecman, told Avonte's grandmother that as the boy walked past her, she asked him where he was going. The teen, according to the lawyer, didn't answer because he cannot communicate and the guard let him go because she didn't realize that he was disabled.
"The bottom line is they [the school staff] were looking inside the building," Perecman said. "If they had spoken to their security guard, they would have known he was outside the building."
"We recognize that this case involves a distressing situation," a spokeswoman for the New York City Law Department said in an e-mail Thursday afternoon. "We have not yet been served with any papers."
The Department of Education referred question to the NYPD, citing an "ongoing police investigation."
"We are working closely with them," a spokeswoman said.
Amid the fast moving developments, family and friends camped out in Long Island City on Friday under a small tent set up across the street from Avonte's school, which they were using as a make-shift headquarters for volunteers.
Avonte's older brother, Danny Oquendo, said he and other family members had been at the location since Thursday, having slept in a car overnight.
"We're running on a half hour of sleep each, maybe," he said. "It's hard, but sleeping is not going to find Avonte."
Oquendo said hundreds of volunteers have come forward to help in the search effort, and they've been canvassing the city with fliers all week.
Patty Kealey was one of those volunteers who came out on Friday.
"My daughter has autism, so I have a close connection," she said, saying she's looked for Avonte at subway stations around Queens, and walked from her home in Woodside to Long Island City, putting up posters along the way.
"It's every parent's fear, of a child with special needs," she said. "There are these extra worries that we have with things like this — they're so vulnerable."
The group is planning to hold a vigil in front of the school this Friday at 5 p.m.
According to the NYPD, more than 50 officers daily participate in the search, which involves helicopters and boats.
Officers have been also searching subway tunnels looking for Avonte, who, according to the family, is fascinated with the subway system and likes riding the trains.
The MTA has been making announcements since Thursday afternoon on both trains and stations, asking straphangers for help. The message was also posted on more than 100 digital panels at the entrances to subway stations in Manhattan.
The reward for the safe return of Avonte was increased Friday from $5,000 to $50,000, according to Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization.
On Wednesday, Manhattan law firm Mayerson & Associates offered a $5,000 reward for Avonte's safe return. Another $5,000 came from a non-profit private autism school, the Manhattan Children’s Center, and additional $5,000 was offered by the Gelb Family Foundation. Autism Speaks also received $35,000 from an anonymous donor to help find the child, said Lisa Goring, vice president of family services for Autism Speaks.
“We can only imagine the hardships that Avonte’s family must be feeling,” Goring said. “Wandering is a serious concern for a portion of our population and that’s why it is so important that we do what we can to try and help with his safe return.”