Family Plans to Sue in NYC Autistic Student's Choking Death

Relatives of an autistic student who died after choking on lunch at school are planning a lawsuit they hope will spur closer supervision of special-needs students, their lawyer said Friday.

Dyasha Smith, a nonverbal 21-year-old, choked at her Brooklyn school on Tuesday. She was supposed to have an aide with her all the time, attorney David Perecman said.

"How do you choke if you have somebody sitting right next to you, helping you eat? This child is not supposed to be left alone to sit and eat by herself," Perecman said at a news conference.

Smith's mother, Catherine Smith, has said she told school officials her daughter's food had to be cut up or she would swallow it whole.

"She's not a child to be alone. She's a child, when she's eating, you have to either feed her or make sure she takes little by little," Smith told NBC 4 New York earlier in the week.

It's unclear whether anyone administered the Heimlich maneuver after Dyasha Smith choked, Perecman said.

Catherine Smith said she had complained for several years that her daughter's aide, or paraprofessional, sometimes was neglectful. She plans a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city, saying the city should do more to train workers.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said officials are investigating and would share findings once they are available.

"As a parent and as a grandparent, I can't imagine what (Catherine Smith) is going through," Farina said in a statement.

Perecman also represents the family of an autistic 14-year-old, Avonte Oquendo, who died after slipping out of his Queens school a year ago. The attorney said Smith's death reflects broader shortcomings in how the city school system handles special-needs students.

"They don't seem to want to face the problem," he said.

He didn't specify what changes the Smith family's planned suit might seek.

Smith was "very innocent," with the mind of a 3-year-old, said her older sister, Veronica Smith.

"She left home healthy, happy, and then she didn't come back home," she said. "It's really a trauma on my whole family."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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