Prompted by Death of Avonte Oquendo and a Slew of Other Incidents
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Child advocates, families of autistic children and elected officials rallied at City Hall on Thursday in support of a bill that would require alarms to be installed on the outer doors of New York City elementary schools and schools for students with special needs (District 75).
Councilmember Robert Cornegy, Jr. (D - Bedford-Stuyvesant, Northern Crown Heights) introduced the Audible Alarms bill (Intro. 0131-2014) in March following the death of autistic teen Avonte Oquendo, who slipped out of school last October through an unalarmed door. Oquendo's body was found in late January on the shore of the East River.
Councilmember Cornegy said that there have been at least six incidents this school year where young or disabled children left school buildings without the schools' knowledge.
“I am a father of six children, including 6 year-old twins. It makes me shudder to think of them in the streets on their own," Cornegy said in a statement. "This safety issue must be addressed promptly, before the expansion of pre-kindergarten brings thousands of additional 3- and 4-year-olds into school buildings this fall.”
Cornegy said at a Council meeting in March that door alarms had already been installed at P.S. 59 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where 4-year-old Symeir Talley-Jasper walked out of a side door, then made his way home in freezing weather without a coat.
Regina Green, a representative of District 75's Community Education Council (CEC), said in a statement, "The Citywide District 75 Council fully supports Councilman Cornegy’s bill and is committed to helping advance it in any way possible.” Regina Castro, a District 75 mom and NYC Parents Union member said, “I am in total agreement with the Audible Alarms Bill that will ensure what happened to Avonte Oquendo will never happen again, and to ensure the safety of all our children while in school."
Public Advocate Letitia James call the door alarms a "common sense" measure. “The tragic and preventable death of Avonte Oquendo has awakened us to the need to strengthen security measures in buildings that house special needs – and specifically non-verbal – public school students."
Sam Pirozzolo, a member of CEC 31 in Staten Island, complained that DOE knew of parental concerns regarding the lack of security for school building entrances and exits "as far back as 2012 and chose to do nothing." He said, "CEC 31 formally proposed similar measures be taken to protect our school children in January 2013, specifically calling for enhanced security at all entrance and exit doors of public schools. Our proposal was met with rejection and scorn by the schools chancellor at that time, Dennis Walcott. I believe that our suggestions would have prevented the tragic loss of Avonte Oquendo’s life and would have stopped the other five students from being able to just walk out of a school past unlocked and unattended doors.”
The bill complements one recently proposed by Senator Charles Schumer that would supply GPS tracking devices to families with autistic children, on a voluntary basis.
Other speakers on Thursday included Councilmember Laurie A. Cumbo (Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Crown Heights), Education Committee Chairman Daniel Dromm, Councilmember Chaim Deutsch, Councilmember Costa Constantinides and representatives of groups including including Autism Speaks, Teamsters Local 237, Students First NY and Citizens’ Committee for Children.
The door alarm bill has 46 sponsors in the New York City Council.