A 14-year-old Long Island boy with autism has been suspended for five days and barred from all end-of-the-year activities at his school following an incident in which he wandered away from the premises. He won’t be allowed to go to graduation rehearsal, sign yearbooks with his classmates, or attend the school picnic. His parents, however, say it’s not his fault.
Security procedures and technology at the school were supposed to guarantee the safety of Michael, an 8th grader who is prone to wandering off as one of the traits of his autism spectrum disorder. But those systems failed him, and he ended up leaving school in the middle of the day and walking half an hour home, which required him to cross a busy road without a crossing guard. He was missing for over an hour before faculty even realized he was gone.
“It scared me,” said Michael’s mother, Keri. “It scared me that they didn’t know where my son was.”
When Michael was finally located, school officials responded by taking away the middle schooler’s privileges and suspending him. No action was taken against the school employees who allowed Michael to escape and failed to notice that he was missing.
“It was really upsetting,” says Michael, “Because I always was a good kid. I always tried to follow the rules.”
The family is outraged at the school’s decision to discipline their son but not any of the teachers involved in the incident. They say the faculty should have been trained to handle Michael’s wandering under Avonte’s Law, a federal law named after a 14-year-old boy from Queens who wandered away from his school and drowned in the East River.
“We’re still looking at children with autism as they have a behavioral problem,” says Keri. “This poor boy who ended up in the East River could have been my son.”
Michael has been told he’ll be able to participate in the activities he’s been barred from if he apologizes for wandering away, but his family says that’s like asking him to apologize for being autistic.
“It’s treating people with autism like they’re bad kids,” says Michael’s dad, Mike. He and his wife stress the fact that Michael was not intentionally breaking any rules.
The district declined to comment due to confidentiality rules, but it issued a statement claiming it would be reviewing systems and protocols related to students’ safety.
“Please know that the safety, health, and welfare of every student, faculty, and staff member is of paramount importance,” says Superintendent of Schools Kenneth R. Bossert. “The administration and our security team will continue to review all systems and protocols in and around our school facilities.”
Check out the video below to learn more about this sad situation.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?