Palm Beach County schools to spell out rules for Baker Acting students

Palm Beach Post | By Sonja Isger | September 21, 2021

The Palm Beach County School Board is poised to adopt its first policy that directly addresses the practice of removing students from campus and delivering them for involuntary mental health evaluations under the state’s so-called Baker Act.

The proposed policy was crafted in the glare of growing community outrage and a pending lawsuit that contends the county’s schools have wielded the Florida law recklessly and with prejudice against minority students and those with disabilities. 

As a result, hundreds of children, some as young as 5 years old, have been taken to psychiatric facilities each year, a journey typically made in handcuffs in the back of a police car without a parent on hand. 

Whether the new training and protocols will correct the alleged abuses of the Florida Mental Health Act remains to be seen, but the seven-page policy to be reviewed by  school board members at their meeting Wednesday evening was clearly written with those criticisms in mind. 

“This policy is important for the school district to ensure we meet the needs of our students and that all prevention steps and interventions are taken to ensure their success,” said Keith Oswald, the district’s chief of equity and wellness.

‘It’s definitely an improvement over the prior status quo, which was no policy’

Among other things, the policy promises more training for educators and police, demands that principals be more aggressive in contacting parents during episodes that may lead to a child being subjected to a psychiatric evaluation at a local mental health facility or hospital, and requires better documentation and follow-up of each incident.

“This is definitely an improvement over the prior status quo, which was no policy,” said Sam Boyd, attorney for the Southern Policy Law Center, which raised alarms about Baker Acting students last springand is among a group of organizations representing parents in a lawsuit against the district. 

“In some ways it takes some of the steps we’ve called for in our report and litigation,” Boyd said. But in many respects, it doesn’t go far enough, he argued. 

Florida’s Mental Health Act, commonly known as the Baker Act, gives police, judges and mental health professionals power to subject people to an involuntary psychiatric exam if they appear to be in the throes of a mental health crisis that poses an imminent threat of harm to themselves or others. 

But critics contend school administrators use the law in ways beyond its intent. 

n April, the SPLC published a scalding 40-page report about how schools across the state abused the law to remove unruly students or in reaction to carelessly lobbed threats or comments about suicide. 

Palm Beach County had 1,217 students committed over four years

The authors turned the spotlight on Palm Beach County for their case study.

The organization found the school district had Baker Acted 1,217 students over the past four years. Twenty percent of them were elementary students — 59 were under age 8. 

Two months later, advocates for disabled and minority children sued the school district over the practice they described as “excessive and illegal.”

In the federal suit, the plaintiffs said the school district had deprived hundreds of children of educational opportunities and inflicted unnecessary trauma by forcing them into mental health centers over unthreatening behavioral incidents.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers weighed in, directing districts to address such concerns in written policy. 

The district’s proposed policy begins with education, including a minimum of two hours in suicide prevention training. It also calls for instruction to familiarize administrators with what behavioral and mental health services the district provides.

It spells out that only a licensed member of a district crisis response team, a member of the county operated Mobile Crisis Response service or a school police officer working with their supervisor can determine that a student meets the legal criteria to be Baker Acted. 

“A referral for involuntary examination may never be used as a behavioral consequence and may not be used as a threat against a student and/or parents,” the policy states.

The district spells out plans to document each time a school seeks to Baker Act a student, records that will be available to the school board and throughout the district chain of command.

More than two instances of students transported in a quarter triggers a review

The policy triggers an administrative review if a school has more than two instances of transporting a student for evaluation in one quarter — a number that came down from three at the behest of school board member Karen Brill during a workshop in July. 

But schools are not required to give parents a say-so in the call to dispatch a student to a psychiatric evaluation, just one of many flaws critics find with the proposed policy.

“Parents are aware of presenting disabilities, triggering events, availability of services, and de-escalation strategies that the school may not be aware of. Based on the capability of trauma to children with the involuntary examination, parents should be included in the process from the beginning to mitigate harm,” said Melissa Duncan, attorney for the Education Advocacy Project of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, which is among the organizations behind the lawsuit.   

The policy also does not detail what happens in the event that the mental health experts and the police are both called to the scene and disagree on what is required, Duncan said. Child advocates want to see the mental health authorities given the upper hand in that tie.

The proposed policy continues to permit police to handcuff even the youngest of children and drive them in the back of a marked cruiser, despite testimony from parents who reported their children still grapple with the trauma that trip induced. 

Boyd notes that in the rare instance when an evaluation is needed, schools elsewhere have found ways to transport youngsters in unmarked cars, with plainclothes officers, making a mental health crisis distinct from an illegal one, avoiding the trauma that can accompany the latter. 

Much is left to training to help turn the tide of inappropriate use of the law, and without seeing that training in action, it’s hard to tell whether the right messages will land, Boyd said. 

Boyd suggested the district seek guidance from others outside of Florida, sayingmost districts within the state have proved equally inept at distinguishing when the state’s Mental Health Act should be applied and how.    

“In reviewing the policy, many children are still susceptible to the misuse of this process, leaving parents and children with an indelible mark of trauma,” Duncan said.

Last month, the district asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Florida, the NAACP and five students and their families, arguing the district acted within the scope of the law. The judge has yet to rule.

Said Duncan, “The policy is a good step, but more work needs to be done to make sure that children are not wrongly ensnared in the wide net that this policy casts.” 

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