The Tragic Death Of Avonte Oquendo: How A School Lost A Vulnerable, Autistic Teenager

Avonte OquendoReuters/Carlo AllegriA girl turns around after looking at a missing poster for Avonte Oquendo, a missing 14-year-old autistic boy, on a wall in the Brooklyn borough of New York, October 17, 2013.

News broke Tuesday that human remains from the East River belong to an autistic 14-year-old who had been missing since October — and who vanished when his teachers should have been watching him.

Avonte Oquendo slipped away from school after lunch on Oct. 4, even though he had a reputation for wandering away during transitions and an individualized education plan that noted this tendency, his family’s lawyer David Perecman previously told Business Insider.

There is still a lot we don’t know about what happened to Oquendo after he was lost and how he ultimately died. There are no obvious signs of foul play, the New York Post reported. We do know the teen, who could not speak, was afraid of the water, and that his parents don’t know how he ended up in the river, Perecman told NBC News. The Post also noted his remains were found with Fruit of the Loom underwear that was too large for Oquendo, leading his family’s lawyer to speculate that somebody may have had the boy for a few days.

For now, though, a cause of death has yet to be determined. We do have a few clues about how he disappeared from his school on Oct. 4, and they don’t reflect well the Riverview School in Queens that he attended.

Those details came in a timeline of the boy’s disappearance prepared by the school’s principal and obtained by Oquendo’s family under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. The timeline shows a classroom aide first noticed Oquendo’s disappearance at 12:40 p.m. It wasn’t until 2:30 that a school principal was able to get a password to look at surveillance footage to find out where he may have gone, though.

The family’s lawyer says the school also waited 45 minutes to call the police. It’s clear from the timeline that the school waited nearly an hour to phone Oquendo’s mother. Based on the school’s timeline, a strong argument can be made that the school didn’t respond nearly swiftly enough to the disappearance of a particularly vulnerable student.

Indeed, the loss of a special-needs child in New York City is unprecedented, Perecman told me. “People lose their keys. People lose their wallet. Losing a child?” he has previously said.

While the loss of Oquendo may have been unprecedented, so too was the city’s search for the boy. The city papered the subways with pictures of the boy and made frequent announcements on trains asking passengers to look for him. But in the end nothing could be done to correct the early mistakes that led to this tragedy.

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