NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The New York City Council held a hearing Thursday on “Avonte’s Law,” a bill that would require audible alarms on all entry doors in elementary schools and schools with special needs programs citywide.
The bill is named for Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old autistic boy from Queens who walked out of his school in Long Island City last October. His body was found three months later along the East River in College Point.
Avonte was described as severely autistic and unable to speak. His disappearance sparked a massive citywide search effort that included hundreds of officers, marine units and volunteers.
The alarms would help prevent students from leaving school buildings unattended.
Oquendo’s grandmother, frustrated parents and officials converged on City Hall Thursday, urging the City Council to move faster to pass “Avonte’s Law,” CBS 2’s Janelle Burrell.
The bill’s prime sponsor, City Council member Robert Cornegy, said eight children ran out of school buildings unnoticed in this school year alone.
“We’re not gonna take any deal that doesn’t put our children’s safety as a priority and does not alarm school doors first and foremost,” said Cornegy.
“What happened to Avonte will never, never happen again,” one woman said.
“It’s incredibly terrifying that you can drop your children off and they can go missing,” another woman said.
“Where is the supervision? Where is guidance of the school? So we need that alarm, we’re begging you for that alarm,” said Eva Sanjuro, who rallied on behalf of her autistic grandson Joshua.
Some parents had accused the council’s education committee of purposely stalling the legislation, a claim its chair denies.
“Nothing, and I repeat nothing, could be further from the truth,” said education committee chairman Daniel Dromm.
City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina has said the Department of Education is open to the idea, but has concerns about the cost. Installing audible alarms could run an estimated $1.5 million. The alarms are estimated to cost between $125 and $160 each.
“We do have door alarms, they are in our tool kit, but we just want to retain discretion to place them where we think appropriate,” Deputy Schools Chancellor Kathleen Grimm told WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb.
Gary Hecht, who is in charge of New York’s special needs education, is concerned about the impact the noise could have on some autistic children.
“It would be a fright and flight for some kids and they would go running out the door and they would knock people over,” Hecht said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 500 pounds or not, they’ll leave, they’ll just knock you [down] to get out of the building because of the fright level.”
Advocates said the proposed law has the support of 47 out of 51 council members, Burrell reported. They’re now hoping the City Council will allocate the funds to get the alarms installed across the city so they’ll be in use by the next school year.
After the hearings for the bill wrap up, the next step is for the legislation to go before the full City Council for a vote, before it can be signed into law, Burrell reported.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice said it will fund voluntary tracking devices for children with autism or other conditions that put them at risk for fleeing their caregivers.
The announcement came after Sen. Charles Schumer called for new legislation, also dubbed “Avonte’s Law,” to fund the voluntary tracking devices.
Schumer said in January the Department of Justice has agreed to allow existing grant funds to be used for the devices.
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