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Merrick family uses GPS device as autistic sons' safeguard during school

Dayann McDonough, center, is shown at her Merrick

Dayann McDonough, center, is shown at her Merrick home on Monday, Nov. 2, 2015, with sons Douglas, 10, left, and Donovan, 8, right, both of whom have autism. McDonough uses a GPS device named "Angel Sense" to monitor the whereabouts of her sons while they are at school. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

The Merrick parents of two boys with autism have outfitted them with GPS tracking devices to wear while they are at school in case they run away, and want to spread the word to other families with special-needs children.

Brian and Dayann McDonough, who said their sons have repeatedly wandered from home or educational settings, said they initially met with resistance from school officials who cited concerns about other students' privacy related to the device's audio monitoring capability.

Now, with educators' agreement, both boys are wearing the GPS trackers to school that can provide text and email notification of a location change.

Douglass, 10, is a fifth-grader at Old Mill Road Elementary School in the North Merrick district, and Donovan, 8, attends third grade at Jerusalem Avenue Elementary School in North Bellmore, a specialized school operated by Nassau BOCES.

"No matter how good the level of supervision is, if a person is terrified and wants to run away . . . you are not able to keep them from running away," Dayann McDonough said.

She cited the case of the late Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old boy with autism who ran out of his Queens school in October 2013 and whose remains were found along a rocky shoreline in College Point almost four months later. Last year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed "Avonte's Law," requiring the city Department of Education and police to evaluate which school doors should be equipped with alarms to help prevent wandering incidents.

Nationally, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has introduced the federal version of "Avonte's Law." The legislation, which has bipartisan support, would authorize funding for voluntary locator devices that could be worn by children with autism, along with other steps to address wandering. It seeks $10 million in grant money to help parents purchase such a device.

"The technology will allow parents of children with autism, no matter how much money they have, to enjoy the benefits of a high-tech solution to an age-old problem," Schumer said Tuesday.

Dayann McDonough said Donovan has run from home multiple times since December 2013 even though the doors have locks and the windows have alarms.

Getting approval for use of the GPS device from the school districts was not automatic, she said. In September, North Merrick school officials raised concerns because the device, made by New-Jersey-based AngelSense, has a "listening-in" feature that allows those tracking a person to hear what is being said by others around him or her.

"You can press a button, it calls the device and you are able to listen. The school was concerned about a violation of confidentiality for other students and teachers," McDonough said.

North Merrick Superintendent David Feller said he could not talk about a specific student because of confidentiality regulations. Speaking generally, he said, "We are sensitive to the needs of kids and parents in this regard. The district would consider any device that would help for the safety of the child as long as that device is used appropriately and meets legal guidelines."

Representatives from Nassau BOCES said they allow use of GPS tracking units "as long as there is no audio or other component that may compromise the confidentiality guaranteed to special-education students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)."

McDonough said she learned from AngelSense that the listening-in feature can be disabled. School officials are alerted when the feature is disabled during school hours.

AngelSense -- founded in 2013 by Doron Somer, who has a son who is autistic -- is one of several companies offering the technology.

McDonough said her sons are thriving in school, socially and academically, and she believes that they are more safe wearing the device.

"My hope is that should another parent need assistance like this, now that the district sees the GPS device is not intrusive or harmful or disruptive to learning . . . they will be less afraid and less defensive and the child will be protected," McDonough said.

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