Parents of Michael, a fourteen year old boy with autism, are outraged by the way Elwood Middle School in Suffolk County, New York handled a serious and potentially dangerous situation that occurred last week involving their son.
Following an argument with a school aide, according to The Patch, Michael left the school, crossed roads with no crossing guards, and made his way home. His mother, Keri, was confused that her son had arrived early from school and upon finding out that school was still in session, returned him immediately. In all, Michael was gone from the school for a total of one hour, yet the staff was completely unaware that he had ever left. Kerri told CBS2, “It scared me; It scared me that they didn’t know where my son was.”
Rather than apologize for not noticing her son’s disappearance under their care, school officials informed Michael’s mother of his punishment when she returned him to school. His punishment was a five day suspension, which barred Michael from attending end of year festivities such as graduation rehearsal, yearbook signings, and the school picnic.
At a press conference, at which Michael, his parents, and his therapist Jennifer Bohr-Cuervas were present, Michael’s father, Mike, stated that the punishment against his son was “shocking and cruel”. He referenced his son’s Individualized Education Plan’s goals in regards to socializing and said that the school’s punishment is essentially taking away Michael’s opportunities to socialize with his peers and grow his fundamental skills.
Michael’s parents also cited Kevin and Avonte’s Law at this press conference, which protects children with autism who may wander from safety. The law was named after two young boys, nine year old Kevin Curtis Wills and fourteen year old Avonte Oquendo, who both wandered from safety and were found dead. The implementation of the law also includes providing grants to organizations for the purpose of facilitating training and emergency protocol to school personnel, yet Michael’s case shows the lack of training at his school.
“The administration is not nearly as trained in the social and emotional nuances of autism as they should be.”, stated Bohr-Cuevas. Michael’s father added to that, saying, “It’s a known issue with autism; They did not have the people trained, they did not have the systems in place to keep track of our children.” Given that this was not the first time Michael had attempted to leave school, as he has a tendency to remove himself during uncomfortable situations, his parents believe the school staff should have been more prepared and should not have punished their son.
When attempting to see if their son could still attend the school picnic and yearbook signing if he completed his suspension, Michael’s parents were told he would be able to, if he apologized for wandering off. In their eyes, that would be the equivalent of Michael apologizing for having autism and is completely unacceptable.
Michael’s parents do not intend to sue the school, but want to spread awareness of the incident. Speaking on what happened to young Avonte in 2014, Michael’s mother says “this poor boy who ended up in the East River could’ve been my son.”