The name alone brings instant sadness to the minds of special needs parents everywhere. A life taken too soon. A senseless death.
The 26-year-old man with Down syndrome died after police restrained him in a movie theater that he refused to leave. Ethan stayed for a second viewing of a movie, without having paid for it. The aide that was with him at the time begged the off-duty police to not aggravate Ethan; that his mom would soon arrive and make him leave. The death was ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia, and the off-duty police officers involved are now being tried in a civil law suit.
21-year law enforcement veteran, Travis Atkins, says the Ethan Saylor death was a travesty that should have never happened. Now he’s started a non-profit to help change perceptions of people with intellectual disabilities within the law enforcement community.
Growth Through Opportunity (GTO Cadets) is a program designed to provide adults of all ages with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and other unique challenges an opportunity to gain valuable job skills and social experience.
“First responders and GTO Cadets grow immensely in their respective levels of understanding by being partnered together over a 16-week period. This drastically decreases negative encounters during future, real-life situations,” Officer Atkins explains.
I got a chance to hear Officer Atkins talk at the 1st Annual NDSS #DSWorks conference. He brought along one of GTO’s first cadet graduates, Tyler Caldwell, who happens to have Down syndrome.
“I got to wear a uniform just like all the other officers. When I was at State Special Olympic Games, I got to wear it and march in the torch lighting ceremonies with officers from other cities. People would recognize me when I was out as one of the GTO Cadets. That really made me happy. All my friends wanted to be in the program, too. Police officers are really nice people and are my friends,” Caldwell describes.
After spending 16 weeks as a volunteer cadet, Caldwell got a job at Kroger. “People recognized me from Police Department,” Caldwell says. And Officer Atkins says that’s the end goal. “Our goal is to enhance confidence, employability, and quality of life for participants. From a law enforcement officer’s perspective, there’s no better way to learn than by first-hand experiences in a controlled environment,” Atkins explains.
With the assistance of a first responder, cadets are taught specific tasks inside the department, as well as in the community.
“They assist our police department with crime prevention presentations, role playing at the police academy (which helps mold the minds of young recruits), and playing the role of the National Crime Prevention Council’s McGruff the Crime Dog®,” Atkins says. The City of Roanoke even has a sheriff’s vehicle and ambulance with the GTO logo, which helps break down barriers within the community.
Atkins says it’s community inclusion that will help prevent another tragedy like the death of Ethan Saylor. “GTO challenges other agencies across the nation to be pioneers and trend setters in the field. Be creative. Be innovative. Consider incorporating these fine individuals into your agency.”