Kenneth French, Max Benson, Ethan Saylor and sadly the list goes on and on of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who have had encounters with various authorities – law enforcement, security, school authorities – that have tragically ended in death. I can’t refer to these individuals as “cases” because they are so much more than that. They are sons, family members, loved ones, students, friends and were integral parts of their communities. In each of these instances their deaths resulted from an inability of the person(s) in authority to respond within reason to what many refer to as a “complex behavior”. Ethan wanted to watch another movie without paying for it, Max was “in trouble” for kicking a wall and by all accounts Kenneth was shoving his way into a food sample line. None of these started out as a crisis but they quickly escalated into one. I don’t believe that any party entered those interactions intending for them to end in death but, what I do believe is that we have to start with the fact that in each of these incidents the people in authority didn’t respond reasonably. I keep thinking about what the judge said when he spoke about Ethan and the fact that he “died over the cost of a movie ticket”. Did Max die for a 3 ft. by 3ft. piece of drywall or Kenneth for a Costco snack? What is the worst that would have happened if Ethan saw another movie or Max kicked holes in the drywall?
As we hear about more and more of these types of incidents it becomes harder to balance the fear that comes along with developing independence. I certainly don’t have the answers to the above questions or to how we fix such a complex societal issue. What I do know is that Kenneth, Max and Ethan would have stood a far better chance of living through those interactions if the people in authority had a better understanding of communicating with people with IDD. Without a doubt there is a wide range of behavior within the IDD community and much of it can be very challenging. There is also A LOT of opportunity to affect change and move past the deeply rooted “compliance culture” that plaques the IDD community and into meaningful community inclusion that recognizes the unique communication needs of people with IDD. In all three instances here (as with countless others) the issue revolves around education and meaningful training. It was reported that The Guiding Hands School training failed to instruct staff on the known dangers of using physical restraints. Ethan and Kenneth were both killed by off-duty officers who likely had minimal training on interacting with individuals with IDD. It is clear that there are significant deficiencies in training.
I have heard from many organizations, families and communities that are working on great projects and programs to implement new policies or develop trainings specific to making the community a safer place for our loved ones. Years ago there was a “Think Tank” on Criminal Justice and Abuse Issues for People with IDD that brought thought leaders together to identify and address these issues. I believe the state needs a new “Think Tank” that can bring together all the groups that are working on this so we can share ideas and work together to prevent any more tragedies.