Student Dies, Surveillance Ignored Until Too Late

By Carlton Purvis, Published Apr 03, 2014, 12:00am EDT

The body of an autistic student washed up on a river near Queens, NY after the boy escaped his school. Surveillance cameras were used to show how he escaped but security holes allowed him to get out.

In this note, we look at the role camera placement and surveillance retrieval played in the Avonte Oquendo case from the findings of an investigative report.


Avonte Oquendo was a 14-year-old non-verbal autistic student with a penchant for escaping from buildings. His mother enrolled him at Riverview School, a school for students with disabilities, in Long Island, New York hoping to provide him with a place to learn where he would be supervised most of the day. His mother warned the school to keep an eye on him and to make sure to have daily communication with him because he “will leave the building.”

Whatever the school was doing was worked until on October 4, 2013, when he escaped. His body washed up near Queens three months later. Medical examiners were unable to determine a cause of death.

The Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City schools launched and investigation into the incident and found the school did not follow its own protocols. The report also shows cameras could have helped if the school would have looked at the footage sooner.

Problem Accessing Surveillance Footage

After an instructor noticed Avonte was missing, no one in the building had the password to review the cameras and the principal who did was gone that day and did not return until later that afternoon.

Cameras Document Escape

The placement of cameras on every floor and on both sides of entryways and exits allowed the school to document Avonte's route of travel from breaking away from his class to leaving the building.

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SCI investigators say footage showed Avonte move from location to location, backtracking to avoid a security guard and teachers and eventually making his way out of an open door where buses offload. An exterior camera captures him running down the street and out of sight:

It was first noticed that Avonte was missing after lunchtime. Surveillance video shows a student slipping away from the rest of the group of students and instructors, according to the investigation. The instructor goes after the student, but when she catches up to the group in the classroom, another student, Avonte, is missing.

Staff was alerted by 12:45, but the school was not locked down, because an administrator feared it would alarm the students. A security officer at the school said she saw a student near the front entrance earlier, but was tied up dealing with two people as the student ran back down the hallway. That student was later identified as Avonte.

The Open Door

How did Avonte find an open door at a school where doors are usually locked? Surveillance video shows "an adult male exiting the first floor elevator ... walking down the bus hallway, and leaving the building through the previously closed bus door. He did not close the door behind him and, approximately 30 minutes later, Avonte left the building through the open door,” the report says.

Here is that video:

The doors don’t have alarms on them [link no longer available], and it was a half hour before the safety officer noticed the door open and closed it.

The man who left the door open was thought to be a contractor doing work at the school, but investigators found that the contractor did not get to the site until much later. The person shown in the video remains unidentified.

Footage Kept Secret

So far other than clips above, most of the video hasn’t been made public. Avonte’s mother has twice sought access to the remaining footage and been denied.

Cameras Can’t Be The Only Security Measure

With all the cameras in New York City, it’s still a mystery what happened to Avonte after he ran out of the building. Police have not said anything about city cameras and what they may or may not show.

This is a case of where combined with proper protocols cameras would have been very effective. The surveillance system did everything it was supposed to. The cameras provided complete coverage. All of the cameras were functioning. If the building would have been locked down immediately when he went missing, it’s possible they could have contained him in the building and used cameras to find him. They still had time.

Unfortunately, another security breach, a person leaving the door to the bus yard open, was their undoing. Something that could have possibly been prevented if there with door alarms.

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