Ethan Saylor’s name was not on the curriculum.
But it was clear his death was the reason two dozen Frederick County deputies were sitting in a classroom Tuesday, learning how best to interact with people with intellectual disabilities.
A year after the 26-year-old man with Down syndrome died while three off-duty county deputies forced him from a movie theater — an event that remains the subject of a civil lawsuit — the sheriff’s office has adopted a training program that focuses specifically on individuals with IQs of less than 70. Until now, the training the deputies received was limited to their interactions with people with autism and mental illness.
“After the unfortunate incident with Ethan Saylor, we heard the public, and we heard that there was a demand for this type of training,” Frederick County Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins said.
Jenkins said Saylor’s death left not only a family and the community devastated but also the officers who were involved.
“This has turned their lives upside down emotionally, professionally,” he said. “Really, it truly has.”
The training, which is costing the department about $3,500, was created by two Mount St. Mary’s University administrators who approached Jenkins with the idea in August. The class lasts four hours, and participants are required to take a test at the end.
The training is separate from the efforts of a commission set up by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in September. That commission has the broader goal of ensuring that not only law enforcement officials but all first responders receive education on how to safely manage situations involving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Our overall mission and our goal is to develop a comprehensive set of recommendations that are going to put Maryland on the cutting edge of inclusion,” Maryland Secretary of Disabilities Catherine Raggio said. “So we’re looking at it far broader than local sheriff deputies.”
Raggio said the commission has yet to find any place in the nation that offers statewide training — and Maryland hopes to be the first.
“Kudos to Mount St. Mary’s for taking the initiative and reaching out to the Frederick County sheriff’s office, and kudos to all the other groups that have taken some initiative in various parts of the state,” Raggio said. “We certainly don’t want them to stop what they’re doing at this point. But we believe there needs to be consistent and comprehensive training statewide for law enforcement, first responders and other groups as well.”
Alisa Macht, executive officer for the commission, sat in on a training session in Frederick but said she couldn’t comment specifically about it. It is one of several she has attended as part of a learning tour.
“We think there are a lot of good things out there and a lot of things we’d like to draw from,” Macht said.
Thomas H. Powell, president of Mount St Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., and Gregory Ochoa, academic dean of the school’s Frederick campus, said they approached Jenkins about the training after realizing that they both had professional and personal expertise on the subject they could share. Ochoa has a 19-year-old daughter with Williams syndrome, a genetic condition often accompanied with learning disabilities, and Powell has a 43-year-old son with autism and an intellectual disability.
“We’ve come a long way from a time when people with intellectual disabilities were locked away and not thought of, to where they are now living in the community,” Ochoa said. Anybody can look back at what could have been done differently in the Saylor encounter, he said, but that’s not what the training is about. “We’re trying to look to the future of how you interact with people with intellectual disabilities.”
On Tuesday, Ochoa led the class. He opened by telling the deputies about two cases involving men with intellectual disabilities — one was innocent but had confessed to murder, and the other was guilty. On an overhead screen appeared these words of caution: “No one should excuse people with intellectual disabilities from responsibility. Some are capable and culpable of criminal acts. However extra care must be taken to protect their rights and ensure appropriate justice.”
Powell, who at times also conducts the training, said he often gives this simple advice: If it were my child, how would I respond?
The night that Saylor died, a theater manager had told him that he needed to buy a another ticket to watch the movie again or leave. When Saylor refused, the manager ignored the advice of Saylor’s aide and sought out the deputies who were working part-time security jobs at the mall. Ethan became unresponsive as he was being led from the theater, and his death was ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia. A Frederick grand jury cleared the deputies of any wrongdoing. The Justice Department is continuing to look into the incident.
Patti Saylor, Ethan’s mother, said she applauds the university for “wanting to be part of the solution.” But she voiced concern that the training is being done in isolation, separate from other efforts in the state.
She also said she doesn’t know whether her son would still be alive if the training had been in place last year.
“I think education is always key to understanding, so it could not have hurt,” she said. “Whether or not the people involved would have heeded the training they had, I can’t comment on that.”
Jenkins said that he has sat in on the training and thinks it “could be a model going forward.” Even so, he expressed doubt that it would have changed what happened the night of Saylor’s death.
“Based on what I’ve seen and what I know about what happened at that theater,” he said, “I truly, honestly don’t believe anything would have been different as to the unfortunate outcome.”