Last year in January a man who looked a little like my son died at the hands of three police officers moonlighting as security guards. Those of us in the community, people who love someone with similar features, rose and reacted. Some raged. Some looked for comfort. Some demanded recourse. We all wept.
The wounds came open again when a few days ago Gary Jenkins, the brother of the sheriff of Frederick County Chuck Jenkins, publicly blamed Patti Saylor for her son's death because it was she who allowed Ethan to be in the community. His letter to the Editor of the Frederick News Post stated that, "She should have known better to send him out in public." Apparently, Jenkins believes that Patti Saylor should have somehow considered the possibility that her son's trip to a movie theater would lead to the fatal circumstance of three off-duty officers forcibly bringing her adult son with Down syndrome to the ground, resulting in a crushed larynx, asphyxiation, and the devastating conclusion: homicide.
Jenkins continued by questioning Patti Saylor's decision to not just "Keep him home." His letter speaks loud and clear to the segregation mentality that families face at every stage of their child's life. Really, every day.
***Keep Him Home. Don't you think we've thought of that? Don't you think every time I let my own son with Down syndrome walk alone I trace every step with him in my mind for fear that someone will mistreat him? Someone may not understand his needs; what if there is a question? That only one misstep can lead to tragedy? (I'll admit, before I knew of Ethan Saylor, I lived in a much more naive state, my fears have grown exponentially since his death and all I've seen and read because of it.)
Yet, every day I still teach my son how to grow more independent, how to speak more clearly, how to articulate his feelings. The truly mountainous feat is instead trying to teach the community, the world, how to listen, to accept, dare I say even embrace people who have different abilities. People whose strengths and lives may look different than yours. Is it even possible? ***
Even so, on January 12th, 2013, Patti Saylor allowed her son to go to the neighborhood movie theater, a place he went nearly every week before, with an aide to accompany him. An aide who Jenkins asserted in his letter may not have been qualified, that Patti Saylor should have ensured someone who was "properly trained" be with Ethan. For myself, I can only speculate that it never before this night occurred to Ethan's mother that the three men, trained as first responders, trained to "serve and protect," were in fact not "properly trained" on how to peaceably handle a situation with her son and that lack of training may have caused his death.
Since that night Patti Saylor has been the first and loudest to advocate a way to prevent this outcome for anyone else. She has called for increased training of first responders on both local and national levels. So yes, Mr. Jenkins, on that you may agree, there is a need for "proper training" across the country so that no other tragedy happens like this again.
That said, if the trained and qualified aid that accompanied Ethan was allowed to speak with him, instead of kept from him by the officers involved, perhaps, well, just perhaps...
Personally, I've doubted all along that special training would have mattered in this case. I believe it even less after reading Gary Jenkins letter to the editor because now the Frederick County mentality is out in the open for everyone to see, the solution is simple: "Keep him home."
Ethan Saylor's death was a homicide. Had there not been a three against one altercation, he would not be dead. The fact that the loss of this young man's life did not spark outrage and a thorough investigation from an outside party (for example, one that would have allowed the witnesses to speak without one or more of the very men involved in the room) was at first suspect, and now depressingly obvious, and it comes down from the leadership of the Frederick County Sheriff's department.
The Jenkins' letter insinuates the assertion that mothers like Patti Saylor, who advocate for an inclusive community, who teach and encourage independence for their children of differing abilities, and who have encouraged other parents and educators to do the same -- these mothers are the problem. That allowing our children in public, that's the problem.
No, the problem is not those with developmental disabilities, not with those who may require an extra moment of explanation or guidance. The problem is not and has never been Down syndrome. The problem is closed minds and dare I cliché, closed hearts.
My son has ambitions. My son has skills and hopes. And I hope I can stay strong and follow Patti Saylor's lead; I hope I do not succumb to the pressure to "Keep him home."
For more information about Ethan Saylor, the following cause of #JusticeForEthan, and the efforts of advocates to better train first responders as part of Ethan's legacy, check this Pinterest board for several links.
Ethan Saylor and his sister, Emma: