Metro-East News

Firefighter with Down syndrome says he quit department because he was bullied

Family members of a mentally disabled Sandoval Fire Department volunteer firefighter are calling for justice after he quit when other firefighters made fun of his disability.

Jason Eagan, who has Down syndrome, became a volunteer firefighter with the department in 2016 after years of trying. The 33-year-old said becoming a firefighter meant the world to him.

There was disagreement when Eagan first showed up at the fire department over whether he could be a firefighter, but he passed the physical and completed the necessary paperwork. The department couldn’t refuse him.

That came to an end three months ago, Eagan’s sister Kristin Sian wrote on Facebook on Thursday, after several department members allegedly made fun of Eagan.

“It has come to my knowledge he quit a few months back due to harassment from a fellow fireman,” Sian wrote in social media. “It disappoints and angers me that this was allowed and that a grown man bullied a fellow fireman simply because he’s different.”

Calls to the Sandoval Fire Department for comment have not been returned.

Sian said Friday her brother’s work at the department had always been a divisive topic among the other firefighters. She said some firefighters saw him as a brother, while others felt he shouldn’t be working with them.

“They did not want him to be there at all but he took the classes and put in hours and was always there,” Sian said. “Some of it was joking and some of it was serious, but it was enough to make him quit.”

Jason’s aunt, Mary Kay Eagan-Robbins, said the harassment started last year when other firefighters started taunting him and calling him a “retard.” She said someone deleted Eagan from the paging system that alerts firefighters to emergency calls.

“It went good for two (or) three years and then, all of the sudden, someone at the fire department started harassing Jason and picking on him and bullying him.”

Eagan-Robbins said she only found out about the problem when she saw Eagan heading out of the house to turn in his gear.

“He always put that fire department over even family,” Eagan-Robbins said. “That what was always so important to him.”

She said when Eagan quit, several of the firefighters reached out to the family to make sure he was OK. There wasn’t much that could change his mind, she said.

“It just got to a breaking point where Jason couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “It’s silly stuff to be picking on someone who has Down syndrome.”

Eagan-Robbins said the family currently is contacting attorneys and disability advocates. She said the family isn’t interested in anything other than justice.

“We do want justice for Jason, whether that be a public apology or whatever,” she said. “He’s devastated. He’s depressed about it. It was his life.”

In the meantime, the family doesn’t hold ill will against the Sandoval Fire Department itself, but the individuals who bullied Eagan, Eagan-Robbins said.

“I want someone to be held accountable for what they’ve done and what they’ve said. I want it to be made right for him,” Eagan-Robbins said.

Sian said seeing her brother’s dreams shattered is difficult, and that Eagan still talks about going back often.

“It breaks my heart that he quit after he’d worked so hard to do it,” Sian said. “He always talks about how he wants to go back, but he doesn’t want to go through that again.”

At the department, Eagan trained with the other firefighter and helped with chores at the station, took part in fundraisers and with charity events like as Toys for Tots, and helped with fire-safety presentations to school children.

The hashtags #JusticeforJason and #myfavoritefirefighter have been created by many members of the Sandoval area and friends and family of Eagan.

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Kavahn Mansouri covers government accountability for the Belleville News-Democrat, holding officials and institutions accountable and tracking how taxpayer money is spent.
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