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Lawsuit: Cobble Hill student didn’t have to die

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The family of an autistic student who choked to death at a Cobble Hill high school on Oct. 28 is planning to sue the city for millions, saying that negligence caused the tragedy.

Dyasha Smith, a 21-year-old student at Star Academy, a citywide special needs program that has a satellite at the educational campus at 284 Baltic St. in Cobble Hill, died on Oct. 28 when she choked while eating. Responders rushed her to New York Methodist Hospital in cardiac arrest, where doctors pronounced her dead. She was supposed to have had a paraprofessional with her at all times, her lawyer said.

“How can a child who is supposed to have one-on-one supervision be allowed to choke when people are well aware she can’t be left alone to eat?” asked attorney David Perecman, who also represents the family of Avonte Oquendo, the 14-year-old autistic boy who died after disappearing from his Queens school a year ago. “It’s hard to imagine how something like this happens without negligence.”

Described as “severely autistic,” Smith had worked with the same specialist aid for the past five years, Perecman said. Her mother said she had made it clear that Smith was known to take large bites of food and particularly needed supervision when she was eating.

This was not the first time the school acted negligently with food, Perecman said. Smith’s mother told the lawyer her daughter was allergic to peanuts and the school once sent her home with a peanut-butter sandwich.

School officials told Smith’s mother on Oct. 28 that her daughter choked to death on a muffin, but they told doctors it was a sandwich, Perecman said.

A common thread between the Smith and Oquendo incidents, as well as that of a 15-year-old girl who briefly disappeared after sneaking out of her special-education school in Sunset Park, is that the alleged security lapses all occurred around lunchtime, Perecman said.

“I think what happens is people break from their usual procedures,” he said.

Perecman did not specify how much money the Smith family is seeking in the lawsuit, but he said it would be millions of dollars.

Representatives of the Department of Education declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.

Reach reporter Noah Hurowitz at nhurowitz@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–4505. Follow him on Twitter @noahhurowitz
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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