Children’s Rights Advocates: Federal Judge Allows Lawsuit Over Illegal Use of Florida Baker Act on Palm Beach County Students to Move Forward
PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. – Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon denied, in part, a request by the School District of Palm Beach County to dismiss a case challenging the use of involuntary psychiatric examination of students. The following statement is from the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case, including lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Disability Rights Florida, the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, the Pasch Law Group, National Center for Youth Law and King & Spalding LLP.
“We are pleased that Judge Aileen Cannon adopted the recommendations of Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart regarding the School District of Palm Beach County's motion to dismiss. Judge Cannon’s ruling is a victory and a vindication for the individual families and children we represent and for other children with disabilities in the School District of Palm Beach County, and throughout the entire state. The overuse and abuse of the Baker Act is an issue that affects every county and school district in Florida, which is a national outlier in using its involuntary psychiatric examination statute against approximately 38,000 children each year. The statute itself leaves open the opportunity for misuse of what should be an extraordinary intervention that has become a normal means of school discipline and push out, which disproportionately impacts students with disabilities and Black and brown children.
“Judge Cannon denied the District’s attempt to dismiss the claims against it. While she dismissed some individual defendants in their official capacities and recognized the dismissal of an organizational plaintiff that voluntarily withdrew months ago, the decision keeps the broader claims of the case intact. Judge Cannon ruled that the facts in the Plaintiffs’ Complaint, if true, show that the District’s policies and lack of training resulted in the harm experienced by our child clients, who were taken in handcuffs for involuntary psychiatric examination without their parents’ consent. Judge Cannon’s ruling recognizes the trauma experienced by the children we represent, including that caused by being handcuffed by District police.
“The opinion also affirms the constitutional rights of parents to make medical decisions for their children. Schools can only use the Baker Act on children without parental consent in a “true emergency.” Judge Cannon ruled that our parent clients had successfully alleged that they were unconstitutionally deprived of their parental rights because the District had “ample alternatives” to using the Baker Act. Judge Cannon also ruled that the District had an obligation to try known effective de-escalation strategies before using the Baker Act on children with disabilities.
“Through discovery we have been gathering additional evidence and are confident that we will be able to prove our clients’ claims as the case moves forward. Since we filed this lawsuit, the District adopted policies that incorporate recent statutory changes, increase the role of mental health professionals and reduce the role of police in decisions about Baker Act use, as the Plaintiffs called for in their complaint. However, evidence gathered in the case has shown that more policy changes are still needed and District staff need better training vetted by experts in order to ensure children are not unlawfully or unnecessarily subjected to involuntary examination under the Baker Act. We remain open to working with the District to reach a binding resolution that would ensure its Baker Act policies and trainings keep children with disabilities safe and in their schools and families. Findings in this case could inform school districts throughout the state to improve their practices, policies, training and implementation and provide greater protections for Florida children.”
The court order by U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon on Feb. 23 denying, in part, the School District of Palm Beach County’s motion to dismiss D.P., et. al. v. School Board of Palm Beach County, et al., a case challenging the overuse of the Florida Baker Act in schools, and adopting U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce E. Reinhart’s Report and Recommendation, can be found here.