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Palm Beach County School District to Revise Its Baker Act Policy After Federal Court Judgment

A case against the Palm Beach County School District has ended with the District agreeing to pay $440,000 to students and parents

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. – On July 19, the Palm Beach County School Board will consider proposed revisions to its current policy regarding the use of forced psychiatric examinations of school children under the Florida Mental Health Law, also known as the Baker Act.

The revisions are being considered after U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon entered a judgment against the district on behalf of students with disabilities, who were unlawfully handcuffed and/or removed from their school and subjected to an involuntary psychiatric examination without parental consent.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2021, sought changes in how the school district used the Baker Act to address a host of student behaviors that do not meet the legal requirements for involuntary examination. The court previously found, for example, that the plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged that the school district initiated involuntary examinations for students with autism, even though the Baker Act prohibits its use for developmental disabilities, like autism. 

Some policy changes were implemented after the lawsuit was filed. And as a result, the district claims that the number of Baker Acts on school campuses has dropped by more than 80%, which advocates hope to confirm.

However, the district has not adopted policies that follow federal law regarding parental consent and the use of force by police. The U.S. District Court held that parental consent was constitutionally required before an involuntary examination, except in the event of a “true emergency.” The revised policy does not include measures that disability rights advocates say will keep children safe from harm associated with the Baker Act, including the use of force by police.

The Department of Justice also weighed in by filing a Statement of Interest in the case in June. The department reiterated the district’s responsibility to meet the needs of its students with disabilities through known interventions that could prevent police officers from subjecting children to involuntary examinations.

The court order, issued on July 5, enters judgment for nearly half a million dollars to the students and their parents. The plaintiffs in the case were represented by lawyers for Disability Rights Floridathe Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Inc.the Pasch Law GroupKing & Spalding LLP and the National Center for Youth Law.

“Disability Rights Florida is committed to ensuring that all students are treated with dignity and respect, and that their rights are protected under the law,” said Peter Sleasman, executive director of DRF. “We believe that the current district’s policy does not meet these standards, and we are willing to work with the district on behalf of our constituents to ensure all students’ rights are protected and the district’s policy is in full compliance with the law.”

“The Palm Beach County School district has too long refused to do what it needs to fully protect children from unlawful actions under the Baker Act,” said Bacardi Jackson, interim deputy legal director for children’s rights at the SPLC. “While we applaud the district for making some changes, we are calling on school board members to reject the current proposed policy and adopt additional changes that will make the policy comport with the law, that will address the systemic failures that were revealed in discovery and that will demonstrate its respect for the rights of parents and children.”

Disability rights advocates seek additional training for school staff and administrators and policy changes that severely limit the circumstances when handcuffs may be used on children who pose no threat to themselves or to others. Advocates are also urging the school board to offer parents the opportunity to assist in de-escalating a student before the student is transported for involuntary examination under the Baker Act. The specific edits to the policy being proposed and submitted to the school board for consideration can be found here.