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Nearly All NYC Schools to Get Door Alarms This Year Under 'Avonte's Law'

 Officials announced at a press conference at City Hall that door alarms will be installed at almost all New York City schools this year, as a result of
Officials announced at a press conference at City Hall that door alarms will be installed at almost all New York City schools this year, as a result of "Avonte's Law."
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Bill Alatriste; Inset: NYPD

CITY HALL — Nearly all of the city's school buildings will get security alarms on their doors by the end of this year, officials said Thursday — part of a law passed following the death of Avonte Oquendo, a special needs student who disappeared from his Queens school in 2013.

The bill, known as "Avonte's Law," was passed last year and required the Department of Education to assess its buildings for the need for door alarms and other precautions to prevent students from being able to exit their schools unnoticed.

As a result of the survey, all but 34 — or 3 percent — of the city's 1,263 school buildings will receive the alarms by the end of 2015, some of which have already been installed, officials announced.

"We want to reaffirm for everyone that student safety is our first priority," Elizabeth Rose, the DOE's deputy chancellor of operations, said at a press conference on the steps of City Hall.

The bill was introduced last year and named after 14-year-old Avonte, an autistic student who walked out of a side door that had been left open at The Riverview School in Long Island City in October of 2013.

His disappearance sparked a massive citywide search, which ended three months later when his remains were found on a beach in Queens.

In January 2014, another incident took place in which four-year-old Symeir Talley-Jasper, a pre-k student at P.S. 59 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, managed to leave the school and walk home alone unnoticed.

"The risk wasn’t isolated to Avonte's school, or to differently-abled children," said Bed-Stuy Councilman Robert Cornegy, a sponsor for "Avonte's Law."

An original version of the bill would have required all buildings with elementary or special needs schools to receive the door alarms, though the final version was amended to allow the DOE to evaluate where the alarms were needed.

In the DOE's survey of all the of city's school buildings, 97 percent requested the alarms, officials said. The schools that weren't included either had them already or are located in leased buildings that have their own security systems, according to officials.

The city began installing the alarms in April, with priority going to elementary and special needs schools. The DOE declined to say whether they've been installed yet at The Riverview School that Avonte attended, citing security reasons.

More than 21,000 alarms will be placed at schools across the city by the end of the year, at the cost of $5.55 million. They will be put on buildings' secondary doors but not main entrances/exits, which are instead monitored by School Safety Agents.

School staff will also be trained on how to respond when the alarms are set off, officials said.

"The alarm is a measure of last resort," said Carmen Alvarez, vice president for special education for the United Federation of Teachers. "We're hoping no child ever tests that last resort."

Rose said the DOE is also funding upgrades for schools' video surveillance systems, and providing extra training to staff that focuses on student safety during transition periods — when kids are moving between classes or during dismissal.

Those are the times when students "have the greatest potential to leave the rest of their class," she said.

Avonte slipped away from his teachers and fellow students as they were moving from the cafeteria to another classroom after lunch, a report by the Special Commissioner of Investigation found.

Darlene Boston, an organizer with education advocacy group StudentsFirstNY and mom to an autistic son, said Avonte's tragic disappearance filled her with "sheer terror."

"My son is nonverbal, so if my son was to get out of the building, he would be in complete danger," she said, calling the installation of door alarms at the city's schools "a victory."

"Out of something so tragic, something so great has come about," she said.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer proposed a federal bill that he also dubbed "Avonte's Law," which would fund a program that would provide voluntary tracking devices for parents of special needs children with a tendency to run.