NEW YORK (AP) – The family of an autistic teenager who hasn’t been seen since he walked out of his New York City school a week ago said Friday they’re not giving up hope that he’ll be found safe.
Fourteen-year-old Avonte Oquendo walked away from his school on Oct. 4, sparking a search that has grown to include more than 100 officers, helicopters, marine units and volunteers.
Avonte’s father and older brother staffed a volunteer table across the street from Avonte’s school in the Long Island City section of Queens, handing out fliers for New Yorkers to post around their neighborhoods.
Avonte’s father, Daniel Oquendo Sr., said he’s gratified by the support but added, “We need to step it up. I mean, it’s seven days already.”
Daniel Oquendo Jr. said the family is not getting discouraged.
“Positivity and keeping your energy at a great level is very key,” he said. “He will turn up safe.”
Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, has filed a notice of claim to sue New York City and the city Department of Education over the teen’s disappearance.
The claim charges that the officials at Avonte’s school allowed him to walk out of the building and waited too long to notify police that he was missing.
Fontaine’s lawyer, David Perecman, said school officials also did not call the mother until an hour after Avonte left.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said officers have followed up on more than two dozen tips so far.
“I think we’re doing everything we reasonably can do to find this young man,” Kelly said.
Volunteer Donnell Nichols, an emergency medical technician, said he’s been driving around looking for Avonte.
“Avonte needs us so it’s our duty to be here,” Nichols said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do as New Yorkers.”
Searchers are canvassing the area around Avonte’s school, not far where police boats are also taking part in the search on the East River.
Police have checked subway tunnels because Avonte’s family said the boy is fascinated by the subway system. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is also making frequent announcements to riders about the search.
A reward fund for information leading to Avonte’s safe return has reached $60,000, including $50,000 from an anonymous donation to the advocacy group Autism Speaks.
City Department of Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the schools’ thoughts are with Avonte’s family.
“Let’s try to find the student and then we’ll do the investigation on exactly what happened,” he said.
Associated Press reporter Colleen Long contributed to this report.