I am generally a cheerleader for New York City’s public schools, having attended them and sent all six of my children to them as well. As a new member of the City Council, I joined Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in advocating for universal prekindergarten.
But there’s a serious point of disagreement between me and the Department of Education: I believe that the doors that connect public school buildings to the street should be alarmed. Apparently, the Department of Education does not.
At least seven times this school year, young children have slipped out of the unalarmed doors of public school buildings. Eight-year-old Christopher from P.S. 155. Four-year-old Symeir from P.S. 59. Six-year-old Luis from P.S. 305. Six-year-old Menolec from P.S. 146. Five-year-old Malachi from the Lefferts Gardens Charter School. Six-year-old Tommy out of P.S. 96.
Every one of these incidents followed Avonte Oquendo’s tragic exit from P.S. 277 in Queens, and in every incident, school personnel did not know that the vulnerable children entrusted to their care had left the building.
I shudder thinking of these children alone on the streets. While we support universal pre-K, let’s also address how to keep thousands of additional 3- and 4-year-olds safe at school.
The Department of Education is reportedly considering additional training, installing radio, video and public address systems and adding panic buttons to improve school building safety, but why not consider a simple, affordable safety change first? Install alarms that will sound if a child or adult opens an unmonitored school door.
Remember, Avonte’s school had trained safety personnel and security cameras. We all felt our hearts leap at the images those cameras captured, but video systems only work as a preventative measure if they are constantly monitored. Alarms will actively and instantly call the staff’s attention to the location of a security breach.
I have introduced a bill in the City Council that would require the Department of Education to install audible, local alarms on doors in elementary schools (pre-K to grade five) and buildings housing District 75 (special education) programs. Each alarm cost only $139 and $175 per door, far less than video systems. Principal Dawn Bell at P.S. 59 installed the alarms the same day a pre-K student slipped out of that building. Her school community quickly adjusted to the new alarms and she rests easier.
The school safety agents’ union, Teamsters Local 237, understands that alarms will help them do their job. Autism advocates are also on board. They believe that the loud sound of the alarms will deter children with a tendency to wander. And Avonte’s father told me that the day the bill is signed into law, he’ll be with me at the ceremony.
The time to act is now. Parents, educators and community members, please join me in calling on the Department of Education to embrace door alarms—a common sense solution to a dangerous problem.