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Advocates push for changes to Baker Act policy in Palm Beach County schools

Like districts across the country, the Palm Beach County School District has struggled to fill vacancies in its police department. Now the district is turning to the county sheriff's office for help.

After the school district agreed to pay $440,000 to resolve a lawsuit over its use of the Baker Act on students, some advocates want more protections for children.

Disability rights advocates want the School District of Palm Beach County to do more to protect students from being inappropriately detained under the Baker Act, formally known as the Florida Mental Health Act.

That’s after the district agreed to pay $440,000 to resolve a lawsuit claiming school officials were misusing the Baker Act on children with disabilities.

The state law allows for people to undergo a psychiatric evaluation against their will — including children — if they represent an imminent danger to themselves or others because of their mental illness.

SPECIAL REPORT: Children and the Baker Act

Too often, the law is misused against children with developmental disabilities like autism, according to the advocacy organization Disability Rights Florida.

Ann Siegel is the legal director for Disability Rights Florida, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit against the school district in 2021.

“Many of the students that have been Baker Acted over these years have been students with developmental disabilities,” said Siegel. “And we believe that's an inappropriate use as the statute is specifically designed for people with mental health issues.”

U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon issued a final judgment in the case on July 5, ordering the school district to pay $440,000 to students and family members who brought the case.

The plaintiffs say they represented hundreds of kids who had been detained in recent years, some as young as five years old.

“Although [the plaintiffs] and hundreds of other children like them were treated like criminals, they were not charged with a crime,” the plaintiffs argued in a legal filing. “The overwhelming majority of these children did not need or benefit from involuntary examination and were deeply traumatized by the experience. Once sent for an examination, children wait hours or days in a psychiatric facility, also known as a “receiving facility,” without their parents, for an examination by a clinician.”

School board considers policy changes, following lawsuit 

In the wake of the lawsuit, the Palm Beach County school board is considering changes to the district’s policies on responding to student mental health crises.

A district spokesperson did respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit or the policy proposal.

According to a district memo, the policy updates are in response to “stakeholder input and legislative updates.”

"The School Board recognizes it must take steps to ensure that all students are provided resources, proactive mental health, and behavioral health strategies to have access to a safe, supportive education," the policy reads in part. "All students are to be treated with respect and dignity by District personnel."

During a July 19 meeting, the school board gave initial approval to the policy changes, passing the proposal unanimously as part of the consent agenda.

Siegel says the proposed changes don’t go far enough to adequately protect children from the harms of being Baker Acted — which for many kids entails being taken into custody by police and detained overnight in a facility meant for people much older than they are. It’s an experience that for many children is traumatizing — and for some is indistinguishable from being jailed.

“These are students with disabilities. And they are most vulnerable to the trauma of being handcuffed by police and taken away from their school and their family to a hospital,” Siegel said. “And oftentimes the parents are not notified ahead of time.”

Disability Rights Florida is also pushing for better training to help school staff and law enforcement officers properly assess which children truly meet the statutory requirements for involuntary commitment — and to ensure meaningful alternatives are in place to avert a crisis.

“We really think that if there is an issue where a student seems to be in crisis, we would like the school district to reach out to the parents and have the parents assist in deescalating,” Siegel said. “We feel that oftentimes, having family intervention along with the school utilizing appropriate deescalation techniques will help rectify the situation and will negate the need for any type of involuntary commitment.”

Misuse of Baker Act a statewide concern, advocates say 

Previous reporting shows that the Palm Beach County district is by no means the only place where children with disabilities are being Baker Acted; Palm Beach County schools simply collected data at a time when other districts didn’t, Siegel said.

Still, a 2020 investigation by WFSU and Health News Florida detailed how children with disabilities are increasingly being swept into the mental health system across the state.

A 2021 analysis by theSouthern Policy Law Centerfound that involuntary examinations of Florida children have risen significantly in recent years; between fiscal year 2001-02 and fiscal year 2018-19, the percentage of children who were Baker Acted increased by 150 percent. Children of color have been disproportionately affected, data show.

Still, Siegel says the Palm Beach school district has been open to considering advocates’ recommendations and proposed reforms.

“We don't want students traumatized further. And we believe that the district’s moving in the right direction,” Siegel said. “We just want to work with them to ensure that the progress continues and that the number of students who are subjected to Baker Act go down substantially.”

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As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.