Palm Beach County School District revising policy dealing with students in crisis

WBPF News | By Ari Hait| July 20, 2023


The Palm Beach County School Board Wednesday night approved a first reading that will revise a district policy on how to deal with students in crisis.

Officially, the policy is called the Student Mental Health Crisis Response Policy.

Some people at the board meeting alleged the revisions are due to a recent lawsuit the district lost.

But district officials said they’re only trying to make it a better policy.

The lawsuit ended with a federal judge ordering the district to pay nearly $500,000 to four families who sued the district claiming their children were either improperly removed from school or forced to undergo unnecessary psychiatric examinations.

Some members of the public lashed out at board members during public comment.

“These are children,” one woman said. “And you are mistreating them, and you did not have parental consent to do anything to them. So, shame on you.”

“This overuse and misuse of the Baker Act by the Palm Beach School District is unjustifiable,” said Jen Showalter, a parent.

The Baker Act allows agencies to provide mental health services, sometimes involuntarily, to those who need it.

In this case, those services are provided to students.

The policy the board is revising outlines when and how the Baker Act can be used.

In the past, children have been handcuffed and led out of school to marked police cars.

“Handcuffs should never be used for children experiencing a crisis,” said Ann Siegel, legal director for an advocacy group called Disability Rights Florida. “If they are used at all, it must be limited to only the most extreme circumstances.”

Siegel said her organization has concerns beyond just the use of handcuffs, including what they believe is the district being too quick to call police, rather than parents.

“What it comes down to is often a situation in a limited amount of time that they’re making these decisions,” Siegel said. “What we’re asking them to do is slow down the process.”

“A lot of it is about prevention,” said Keith Oswald, chief of equity and wellness for the school district. “How do we de-escalate a situation when a student is in crisis?”

Oswald said the district calls parents in every single instance.

He said it’s state law.

And he said they only use handcuffs when it’s absolutely necessary to prevent the students from hurting themselves.

“This is a very serious situation,” Oswald said. “We’re talking about life and death when it comes down to these final decisions.”

Oswald said most of the revisions in the policy are connected to training, educating staff on what’s best for the students.

He said the district has committed to working with advocacy groups like Disability Rights Florida to produce the best policy.

The board is expected to take a final vote on the revisions at a future meeting, perhaps as early as next month.

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