2011-03-25 / Front Page

Autistic Youth’s Odyssey

Walked 84 Blocks From School
By Howard Schwach

Pamela Lagrega with her autistic daughter Kristin at their home on Tuesday night. Pamela Lagrega with her autistic daughter Kristin at their home on Tuesday night. An 11-year-old autistic girl walked away undetected from her school’s playground on March 17 and, wearing a green Leprechaun hat with a red fright wig and carrying green and white flowers, walked nearly 84 blocks to a home in which the family had formerly lived.

The odyssey of Kristen Lagrega began in the schoolyard of PS 256@43, a special education school on Beach 28 Street and the boardwalk.

According to Pamela, Kristen’s mom, the young girl, who has few verbal skills and will only share those with people she knows, was in the schoolyard at about 9:15 a.m. with five other children, three adult paraprofessionals and a gym teacher when she decided to go home.

She allegedly walked out of the schoolyard unnoticed. Because Kristen cannot tell anybody the route she took to get to her former home on Beach 118 Street because of her medical condition, her parents can only conjecture the adventures she had skirting the construction area at Arverne By The Sea and walking along busy streets and boulevards, unable to tell anybody her plight.

Pamela shows off the hat Kristin wore and the flowers she carried. Pamela shows off the hat Kristin wore and the flowers she carried. About an hour after the girl disappeared, the parents say, the school called Pamela’s phone and, getting voice mail, left a message that her daughter was missing.

At the same time, the school called 911, setting off a massive search along the shorefront and local streets by police officers, helicopters and canine units.

About 10:30 a.m., the school contacted Kristen’s father, Mike, to tell him that his daughter was missing.

At work in Brooklyn, he quickly jumped into a borrowed car and left for the school.

Meanwhile, Mike, unable to contact his wife, had called a neighbor on Beach 129 Street. The neighbor tapped on Pamela’s window and notified her that her daughter was missing from school.

Pamela began calling politicians and institutions to see if she could track her daughter’s whereabouts.

Meanwhile, Kristen had managed to reach her old home on Beach 118 Street.

When nobody was home she went to the home of a former neighbor and tapped on the door.

The neighbor, confused, called Pamela.

When she reached Pamela, she heard crying and an incoherent ex-neighbor.

“Kristen is missing from school,” Pamela said.

“She’s sitting right here next to me watching television,” the neighbor said.

The parents quickly scooped Kristen up and notified the school and the police that she was safe.

This is not the first time that Kristen has walked away, her parents said.

Just a month prior to the St. Patrick’s Day incident, Kristen was sent by her teacher to the nurse’s office by herself to get her medication.

She got the medication and walked out of the building. She was found by police an hour later on Beach 59 Street.

She has also walked away from home on occasion, and her parents have “secured” the home to keep her inside.

Now, her parents are getting ready to sue the city for negligence.

“The school was aware of the fact that she walks away and was clearly negligent in allowing her to do so,” says local attorney Joseph Mure, who represents the couple. “Her parents are concerned that this could happen to other kids. She should have had the services of a health para and they never gave her one. They never followed through on the things the parents were promised when she was placed in the school.”

“The school covered this up after she disappeared the first time,” Pamela said. “I went to the school and warned them that it could happen again. They paid no attention.”

Now, she says, both she and her daughter are going for psychological evaluations to find out how the incident impacted them in the long term.

Mure is calling for an internal investigation to find out how the girl got out of the school without being noticed and to insure that it will not happen again.

“The school told me they didn’t know that she was missing until they took a head count,” Pamela said angrily. “Why do you need a head count if there are only six kids with four adults?”

Kristen’s twin sister, Danielle, who is also autistic, was at the school as well.

Pamela wants a change of school and a health para for each of the girls.

“We’re so happy to see her home,” Pamela told The Wave on Tuesday night. “I was beside myself with fear and anxiety until my old neighbor called. This should not have happened, because I warned them after the first incident to keep an eye on her all the time.”

“She had the luck of the Irish in order to get home safely,” Mure said. St. Patrick was watching over her that day.”

Margie Feinberg, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said that the school reacted appropriately, calling the police and parents as soon as officials realized that the child was missing.

Feinberg added that the principal is investigating the incident and that several staff members may face disciplinary measures as a result of that investigation.

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Thank God Kristen is okay. I

Thank God Kristen is okay. I am happy that this ended well, but the school was very irresponsible. I am very angry for that and the parents have every right to be angry. 6 kids or 60, autistic or not. I am an active Parent Volunteer in my daughter's school. I watch every child like they are my own. No child should be unaccounted for.

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