When D.P. got upset one day, his teacher allowed him to leave class and take a short walk, giving the 9-year-old boy with autism enough time to calm down before rejoining his classmates.
But on another day, in November 2018, the boy met with a very different response. This time, two adults held him face down on the floor. It followed an incident in which he reportedly threw a stuffed animal in the classroom and made statements that showed he was distraught. A few days earlier, a family member had died.
The situation escalated further, and the third-grader found himself handcuffed in the back of a police car. Instead of taking D.P. home, police transported him to a mental health facility for an evaluation. He was handcuffed for a total of 90 minutes.
Sadly, many other children in his Florida school district and across the state have been subjected to similar traumatic experiences. In fact, the use of the Florida Mental Health Act, also known as the Baker Act – which allows police officers with limited or no mental health training to subject children and adults to involuntary psychiatric examinations – has become so common that people who are detained under the law are said to have been “Baker Acted.”
Across the state, a shocking number of children – nearly 38,000 – were subjected to involuntary examination under the Baker Act during the 2018-19 school year, many of them seized in school for exhibiting normal childish behavior or behavior linked to their disabilities, according to a recent Southern Poverty Law Center report that describes the improper and often illegal use of the act by schools across Florida.
D.P. and his grandmother, who is his guardian, are among the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit brought by the SPLC and other civil rights advocates against the School District of Palm Beach County over its illegal use of the Baker Act.
For D.P., whose name is abbreviated in the lawsuit to protect his identity, the incident left scars. Ever since then, he’s become more aggressive and gets upset more easily. Even after two years of therapy, he still fears that the police and the school are out to get him.
“What happened to our plaintiff D.P. was deeply traumatizing, as it is for thousands of other children, and it was entirely unnecessary,” said Bacardi Jackson, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Children’s Rights Practice Group. “The Baker Act should only be used for schoolchildren in the rarest of incidents, but in Palm Beach County hundreds of children every year are dragged out of the classroom, put in handcuffs, hauled away to mental facilities and held for days without the consent of their guardians. It’s a flagrant abuse of the Baker Act and our lawsuit is intended to stop it.”
Five students with disabilities, along with their parents or guardians, Disability Rights Florida, and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, are filing the lawsuit against the school district after school police officers removed these children and many others like them from their schools, handcuffed them, and transported them to psychiatric facilities to be held for involuntarily examination – all without family consent.
In addition to the SPLC, they are represented by Disability Rights Florida (which is also a plaintiff), Pasch Law Group, Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and the National Center for Youth Law.
In Palm Beach County, where D.P. lived, schools seized children using the Baker Act 1,216 times from 2016 to 2020, including 252 times on elementary students, according to the lawsuit. Black children, including D.P., were seized at twice the rate of white children. That racial disparity was even worse for young children: 40 of the 59 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds who were involuntarily examined were Black.
For a child, the trauma of being forcibly removed from school, taken away in a police car and held for days in a mental health facility cannot be overstated.
“The cost to the lives of children erroneously caught in this psychiatric web is high,” said Jackson. “The cruelty of being ripped from loved ones for days at a time or forcibly sedated is indescribable. Internally, they may face trauma, long-term anxiety and fears, humiliation and a chilled sense of freedom to express their emotions out loud or to ever seek mental health care again.
“Externally, they miss critical time at school, may fall behind in classes, get put on lower academic tracks, find themselves labeled, targeted, overly scrutinized and ostracized, and even homeless if they are in foster care and lose their placement. Additionally, they may suffer the consequences of their caregivers’ financial losses from missed work, large medical and legal bills and even lost jobs.”
The report by the SPLC and national, state and local stakeholders also describes the experience of Shawn M., who was a fourth-grader in Orange County when he was taken from school. Shawn, who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), had been placed in a class for other children with ASD, with the goal of transitioning him to a general education classroom over time.
Because of his disability, Shawn, who was 10 at the time, sometimes reacted strongly to situations that might not generate the same reaction in other children. But his parents and teachers knew how to de-escalate his responses.
That all changed one day in 2018. While playing a game called “orange touch,” he became upset when another student touched him, and he said something that a teacher interpreted as meaning he wanted to hurt himself. But there was no real reason to think Shawn would hurt himself, and he calmed down after an initial outburst.
Instead of contacting his parents or a counselor, however, school officials called the sheriff’s office. And though an officer later wrote that Shawn was “calm and talkative,” the officer took him to a facility for an involuntary evaluation anyway.
His father, Brian, who wasn’t called until after the school had already acted, arrived in time to see his son being questioned by an armed, uniformed officer. He begged the officer to let Shawn come home, but the officer refused. Nor would he allow Brian to drive Shawn to the facility.
At the facility, the intake person acknowledged to Brian that they “cringe” when a child with autism is brought in, because the Baker Act can only legally be used when mental illness causes a child to be dangerous to themselves or others – not because of a developmental disability like autism.
Nevertheless, because the Baker Act had already been initiated, the facility told Brian it could not release his son until he was examined by the only psychiatrist on staff, which could not happen until the next day. Later, a facility staffer wrote that because of Shawn’s autism, they were “unable to assess” most of the criteria used to determine whether a child is a danger to himself or others.
Brian was not allowed to visit Shawn, see the area where Shawn was being held or even talk with him on the phone. Brian was told visitation was allowed only on Saturdays and, because Shawn was brought in midweek, he likely would be held over the weekend – that is, for more than five days.
Shawn was released the next day – but only because his father was able to find and pay for a private attorney, who threatened to sue the facility if they didn’t let him go.
The effects of Shawn’s treatment linger to this day. He frequently talks about not wanting to “go to jail” again. He fears law enforcement and remains terrified of getting into trouble at school when anything out of the norm occurs, sometimes resulting in an emotional breakdown.
Florida an outlier
No other state does this to children on such a widespread basis.
But in Florida, this unnecessary use of the Baker Act has become routine. In fact, the rate of involuntary psychiatric examinations of children has more than doubled in the past two decades, from 547 to 1,240 per 100,000 children.
The Baker Act is also used disproportionately on Black children; 25% of all children who were seized and involuntarily examined were Black in 2016-17 (the last year for which race data was reported statewide), despite Black children comprising only 15% of Florida’s under-18 population.
What’s more, this widespread use of the Baker Act contradicts the recommendations of most medical professionals. Two recent national surveys of over 700 members of the American Psychiatric Association found that mental health professionals support severely restricted and extremely narrow grounds for involuntary commitment. Notably, none of the professionals surveyed considered disabilities or ordinary expressions of sadness to be appropriate cause for involuntary psychiatric examination.
Similarly, one of the few empirical studies of holding children under 10 for involuntary psychiatric examination explains that this practice should be rare because these children rarely have the means to seriously harm themselves or others. Moreover, unnecessary use of the Baker Act actually harms a child’s mental health.
Despite the scientific evidence, schools in Palm Beach County and across Florida continue this practice. The SPLC lawsuit seeks broad reforms that would limit the use of the Baker Act and make school officials more accountable.
“We can and must do better,” Jackson said. “We’re demanding that children have access to the services and resources they need and are free from the trauma of handcuffs, police car transports, confinement and involuntary examinations that are unnecessary, inappropriate and, at times, illegal.”
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