Memo: Safety measures weren’t in effect the day Avonte Oquendo disappeared
The Queens school that a severely autistic teen walked out of earlier this month lacked key safety features that could have prevented him from leaving the building—including working video surveillance, alarmed panic bars and doors with windows, Capital has learned.
None of the administrators or staff at Public School 277 had passwords to access live security camera feeds on Oct. 4, the day Avonte Oquendo, 14, left the brand new Long Island City school through a side door, according to an internal memo written by a teachers' union official that was obtained by Capital.
According to the memo, school employees didn't have the codes to access security footage until after Oquendo's disappearance.
"One administrator said that none of the administrators had the password to log onto the cameras at the computers as of the 20th day of school," which was Oct. 4.
Surveillance footage showing Oquendo leaving the building later appeared on local television stations.
In response to specific questions from Capital about the incident and the memo, schools chancellor Dennis Walcott responded, through a spokesman, with a statement saying that the education department’s “Special Commissioner for Investigations is investigating what happened, and we intend to take a serious look at his findings.”
The massive search for Oquendo is entering its twentieth day.
The Oquendo family's lawyer and special education advocates raised questions in a recent New York Times article about how Oquendo was able to leave the school in the first place, but they have yet to receive much in the way of answers.
The Oct. 9 memo, written by a Queens-based United Federation of Teachers official based on a series of meetings the official attended with D.O.E. safety experts and P.S. 277 staff and administrators, lays out many of the holes in the school’s security.
There was also “no monitor at the front desk” where a safety agent would have seen Oquendo leave the building.
At another point, the memo notes, “Console for school security agent is also on order as well.”
Because they didn’t access to the cameras, school officials “originally believed that the student ran back up another staircase ... . However, student had already left the building.”
School officials were also told that “temporary alarmed panic bars would be in place” by that Friday—a full week after the incident.
“Permanent ones at a later date,” according to the memo.
The meeting also included an employee of the architect firm Gran Kriegel Associates, which designed the building, who “discussed possible add’l cameras as well as adding windows to some doors.”
Because administrators at the Riverview School, the special-education school located in P.S. 277 that Oquendo attended, believed Oquendo was hiding somewhere in the building, they waited an hour before bringing in the teen’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, and projecting her voice over a P.A. system to urge him to come out, according to the Times.
Oquendo was last seen at 12:38 P.M. Fontaine was called at 1:40 P.M. and police were called between 1:35 P.M. and 1:45 P.M., the Times reported.
The Riverview School is one of three inside the building on 51st Avenue. It shares school space with a high school, the Academy for Careers in Television and Film, and Hunters Point Community Middle School.
A spokeswoman for the department of education did not respond to a series of detailed questions about security features at the school, instead providing the following statement from schools chancellor Dennis Walcott:
“Right now our prime focus is on finding Avonte, and we have been working with NYPD on the search. I spoke with Avonte’s family, and my prayers, and the prayers of the entire school community, are with them during this terrible ordeal. The Special Commissioner for Investigations is investigating what happened, and we intend to take a serious look at his findings. I have meanwhile ordered my staff to examine the procedures that we have in place to prevent something like this from ever happening again.“
Police commissioner Ray Kelly said on Monday that the NYPD is considering “scaling down” the massive search operation for Oquendo this week.
The NYPD has deployed over 100 police officers to help with the search and interview anyone who has been recently arrested for child abuse, as well as registered sex offenders. Scuba divers are conducting daily dives at coasts around the five boroughs.