A Brooklyn afterschool program has been suspended after a 6-year-old autistic boy wandered away last month and was found playing in a yard five blocks away, NBC 4 New York's I-Team has learned.
Natalie Miller got a call around 5:15 p.m. Sept. 20 from a teacher at PS 677 in East New York informing her that her son, Jeremiah, had vanished from the afterschool program. The autistic boy was never supposed to be out of a teacher's sight, according to the Department of Education's Individualized Education Program report. His mother feared the worst.
Jeremiah Miller was found five blocks away a short time after leaving the school. Police said he apparently left the program and tried to walk home, but stopped to play in a yard. The homeowner called police.
Afterschool program officials say Jeremiah Miller was gone for less than an hour. While he was unharmed, his mother wants answers.
"It only takes a few seconds for something terrible to happen. What happened to Avonte immediately ran though my mind when I got that call," said Natalie Miller, referring to Avonte Oquendo, the Queens teenager who ran away unnoticed from school Oct. 4 and whose remains were found in the East River three months later.
Like Miller's son, Oquendo was autistic.
Jeremiah Miller's afterschool program is part of the Department of Education's new "Schools Out NYC" initiative to expand afterschool classes. Under the initiative, the city provides funding and school space to independent organizations, including the same security guards that watch the school during the day. The Cyprus Hills Local Development Corporation, which provides the teachers, operates PS 677 program.
The Department of Education told the I-Team the agency is "reviewing protocol and their emergency response" to such cases. Cyprus Hills declined to comment.
Afterschool programs operated by independent organizations ultimately answer to the state and are inspected by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In a statement, department officials said if "a program is found to be out of compliance, violations are issued and programs must comply."
City officials say Cyprus Hills' afterschool program will be reinstated once it's found to be in compliance with the agency's requirements. The circumstances surrounding Jeremiah Miller's disappearance remain under investigation.
Meanwhile, Miller says she has moved her son to an different school out of what she called an "abundance of caution" - though she hasn't yet been able to shake the anxiety she feels when she sends him off to class.
"I'm so grateful he was found safe and sound, but I still worry," Miller said. "To this day I still don't know how a school can misplace a child."
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