The mother of an autistic 14-year-old boy who was last seen Friday walking out of his Long Island City school says she believes school staff may not have been fully aware of her son's condition. NY1's Vivian Lee filed the following report.
It's been almost a week now since 14-year-old Avonte Okwendo slipped out of the Riverview School in Long Island City. The building houses schools for general education and special needs students. And the lawyer working with the boy's mother to sue the DOE for failing to stop him says someone nearly did: A school safety officer who seemed unaware that Avonte is autistic.
"He passed by the security guard, she asked him, 'Where are you going?' And he didn't respond because he doesn't speak. And she let him go assuming he was just an ordinary child," said Family Attorney David Perecman.
And for a mother whose son has never spoken, can only read and write his own name, and tends to run from strangers, his disappearance is sheer agony.
"Your child is not with you at night. I can't see him; he's not looking at me, I'm not hugging him," said Vanessa Fontaine, Avonte's mother. "It's like a part of me is gone. I cannot imagine my son's out there alone. What do they do to make sure they protect these special needs children in an environment where there are also children who are not special needs children?"
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott wouldn't talk about how Avonte might have slipped through the cracks. He says the time to look into that is after the boy is found but he expressed continued confidence in the current system.
"Right now we have a very comprehensive system in place with school safety and police. We had an unfortunate case this particular time," Walcott said.
Fontaine says school officials waited an hour as they searched the school before telling her Avonte was gone. She is urging the public to be persistent if Avonte is found but resists help.
"Bring him to the nearest precinct. Do not let him go by and call afterwards and say I seen your child. That's not helping me," Fontaine said.
The family's lawyer has now added to the reward pot, making it $10,000 for information leading to Avonte, sweetening the incentive to help a frantic mother reunite with the youngest of her five kids.
Anyone with information on the case should contact the Crime Stoppers hotline at 1-800-577-TIPS, or text CRIMES and then enter TIP577, or visit www.nypdcrimestoppers.com.