ANGY ALTAMIRANO AND CRISTABELLE TUMOLA
The search continues for Avonte Oquendo, who family members say is a shy yet happy, lovable, care-free and loving boy.
Avonte, 14, who is autistic, was last seen leaving the Center Boulevard School at 1-50 51st Avenue in Long Island City around 12:38 p.m. on Friday, October 4.
There have been mixed reports on how the Rego Park teen, who cannot verbally communicate and is supposed to be supervised at all times, managed to leave the school, said the family’s attorney, David Perecman. Some say the boy ran away while there was an altercation between other students in the lunchroom, while others say the teacher and aide lost sight of him while moving from the lunchroom to the classroom.
According to Avonte’s grandmother, the security guard appointed to the front of the school said she had seen Avonte running towards the door, asked him where he was going and after he did not respond, she just allowed him to leave because she did not know he was a special needs student. Yet, according to Perecman, no student at the school is allowed to leave the property until dismissal.
Perecman said it took the school close to an hour to inform the boy’s mother that he had been missing.
“They failed me, they really did. [They’re] supposed to be a second parent, when you put you kid in school for the day and until they get home. They failed me as a school,” said Vanessa Fontaine, Avonte’s mother. “Now the school system is not trusted. They shouldn’t have waited an hour to notify me that my son was not there.”
The Department of Education decline to comment, saying it is a police matter.
Avonte’s family held a vigil on Friday, October 11 in front of the school, right next to two tents that have worked as “ground zero” for the family to gather volunteers, hand out flyers and serve as an information center.
Daniel Oquendo, the boy’s father who has been at the site with his older son, Daniel, said people have come from all over the city and outside of New York to lend a helping hand.
“It kind of gives you hope for mankind,” he said. “We appreciate everything everyone is doing, we see the love and we appreciate it.”
The NYPD has officers searching the streets daily for the boy, who family says loves trains, and looking for him by helicopter and with divers.
The family has filed a notice of claim to sue the City of New York for $25 million, taking claims of negligence against both the Department of Education and the Special Security Division which provide the security agents for the school.
“Time is of the essence and they did not make use of the time appropriately,” said Perecman.
“There are lots of questions and no answers and no Avonte.”
An initial $5,000 reward for Avonte’s return was offered by Mayerson & Associates, a New York Law Firm which represents individuals with autism. Manhattan Children’s Center, a nonprofit private autism school, announced it was matching the law firm’s offer with an additional $5,000 from the Gelb Family Foundation.
Since then, the reward has increased to $70,000 through the support of Health First, the employer of the missing teen’s mother, Suzanne and Bob Wright, co-founders of Autism Speaks, David Perecman of the Perecman Firm, and an anonymous donor, according to Autism Speaks.
Oquendo was last wearing a gray striped shirt, black jeans and black sneakers. He is 5’3” tall and weighs 125 pounds.
Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at (800) 577-TIPS (8477). The public can also submit their tips by logging onto the Crime Stoppers website or can text their tips to CRIMES (274637), then enter TIP577. All calls are strictly confidential.
Photo courtesy of NYPD