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Door alarms are just a start for special-needs kids

Avonte Oquendo, a14-year-old autistic boy, ran away from

Avonte Oquendo, a14-year-old autistic boy, ran away from his Long Island City school. His remains were along the Queens shoreline. Photo Credit: Greenwich Village Funeral Home

When Avonte Oquendo, a boy with severe autism, went missing from his Queens school in October, the city pulled together to find him. When his body was found in January, many in the city felt a sadness that later turned into collective anger.

People wanted to know how a nonverbal 14-year-old who was to be supervised at all times slipped out of school unnoticed. An independent report into Oquendo's case released in March detailed a series of mistakes at the school -- but the findings did little to quell the frustration of some parents.

Now, the City Council has arrived at what it believes is a response to that anger: Avonte's Law, which mandates audible alarms on exterior doors of public elementary schools, and those with special-needs programs. Eighteen percent of NYC's 1 million public school students attend special-needs classes. School officials have balked at the bill, citing its estimated $9 million price tag.

The council's action is commendable, but alarmed doors alone won't prevent a tragedy like Avonte's. They are tantamount to applying a Band-Aid to an amputated limb: At least eight children have gone missing from city schools since Avonte.

Some people have called for security guards at every school door, but that's prohibitively expensive.

What would help families with special-needs children is providing the right support and services. A friend recently left NYC after her son was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder because she said she couldn't get the support she needed and didn't want to risk his safety. Any support parents get -- speech therapy, sufficient trained aides and small student-to-teacher ratios -- often comes after hard-fought maneuvers through the labyrinth that is city bureaucracy.

Delivering special education is difficult, but the city has a responsibility to provide it. Door alarms help, but they don't solve the challenge of getting schoolchildren the constant supervision experts say is required. By the time school staff members respond to an alarm, a running child could be out of sight.

If we're serious about school safety, let's take a hard look at the quality of education and services. Alarms and guards will only do so much.

Rachel Figueroa-Levin tweets as @Jewyorican and @ElBloombito.

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