CENTRAL HARLEM — The search for missing autistic teenager Avonte Oquendo has been like a "living nightmare," his distraught mother told Rev. Al Sharpton and the members of the National Action Network Saturday morning.
"This feels like eternity every day," Venessa Fontaine said. "Waiting for my son to come home, this is a terrible nightmare that I can't wait to wake up from."
Avonte's family made an impassioned plea to the group for help with the search that is now into its 15th day.
"We just want to request that everybody take 5 minutes just to look," his father Daniel Oquendo said before breaking down in front of the audience. "If we pay a little more attention to each other, we may be able to see things."
Avonte, 14, went missing from his special needs public school in Long Island City on Oct. 4. So far, there have been no "credible" leads or information about his whereabouts, said the family's lawyer, David Perecman.
"The last we see of Avonte is the video of him walking out the school," he said. "There has been not a stitch since then."
The parents were joined by Avonte's brother, Daniel Jr, and other supporters wearing T-shirts with Avonte's face on them.
The parents have set up a tent at 51st Avenue in Long Island City in case Avonte returns to his school. The tent is operating as a 24-hour search station, with more than 500 volunteers already signed on to the search, according the father.
So far $85,000 in reward money has been raised for anyone with information that would lead to the boy's discovery.
The family's lawyer praised the volunteers, saying he had never seen a search effort like it.
"The effort that has gone on in this city undoubtedly reflects the glorious heart of this boy," Perecman said.
Sharpton criticized the Avonte's school for not providing better oversight.
"Somewhere between the lack of supervision and the lack of concern, Avonte did not make it to class," he said. "When the parents do what is responsible and entrust you with a child with special needs, you expect them to be responsible for that child."
Sharpton said that the school took more than 45 minutes to call the authorities and alert them that Avonte had gone missing. Calling the school's conduct "unacceptable," he said that disciplinary action should be taken to ensure this kind of alleged negligence never occurred in a New York school again.
"Someone high up in that school made the decision to protect whoever was negligent in their job, not the young man that was missing," he said. Promising to help the family in whatever way he could, Sharpton said, "Maybe someone said, 'Don't call it in, we don't want no trouble.' Well, you got trouble now!"
The Department of Education has not responded to a Freedom of Information request from the family asking for a detailed account of what happened immediately after Avonte went missing, Perecman said.
The teen was last seen wearing black jeans, black sneakers and a grey striped shirt. He is 5-foot-3 and about 120 lbs.
His mother said that anyone who encounters Avonte should call police, and try to hold on to him or follow him until the authorities can respond.
Police are urging anyone with information regarding Avonte's whereabouts to call NYPD Crime Stoppers on (800)-577-TIPS, or text at 274637 (CRIMES) and entering TIP577. The public can also contact the police via the Crime Stoppers website: http://crimestoppers.nyc.gov.