Skip to main content Accessibility

D.P., et. al. v. School Board of Palm Beach County, et al.

Under Florida’s Baker Act, thousands of children each year are taken from their classrooms and transported – handcuffed and in the back of police cars – to psychiatric facilities without their parents’ input or consent and sometimes over their objections. There, they can be held for up to 72 business hours.

From the 2016 school year until the 2020 school year, the School District of Palm Beach County initiated at least 1,216 involuntary examinations against their students, invoking the Baker Act 252 times on elementary school students.

Five students with disabilities, along with their parents, filed a federal lawsuit against the Palm Beach County school district after they were unlawfully removed from their school and involuntarily held for psychiatric examination. The plaintiffs include Disability Rights Florida and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP.

The lawsuit describes the traumatic experience of involuntary examination and contends that it is unnecessary and counterproductive for the overwhelming majority of children subjected to it. It describes how one plaintiff, a 9-year-old boy with autism, was deemed a “threat to others” after he became upset because he couldn’t use a computer and allegedly threw a stuffed animal at a teacher. Another 9-year-old was deemed a threat after he allegedly wanted to “stab” another child with a plastic fork. Both were sent to a psychiatric facility for an involuntary examination.

Black students are taken for involuntary examination at twice the rate of white students, and the racial disparity is even starker for children under age 8. Students with disabilities are also disproportionately committed under the Baker Act.

In addition to damages, the plaintiffs seek systemic changes in how the school district uses the Baker Act, including:

  • empowering parents to make decisions about whether their children are involuntarily examined;
  • requiring that trained medical and mental health professionals, not police, advise parents or make decisions about whether to use involuntary examination;
  • eliminating the policy of handcuffing all students during transportation to a receiving facility;
  • using less restrictive and more effective outpatient treatment for children genuinely in need of mental health treatment; and
  • providing school district staff with accurate training about the Baker Act and the potential harms of unnecessary involuntary examinations

On July 5, 2023, the district court entered a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding nearly half a million dollars to the students and their parents.

Two weeks after the case was closed, the Palm Beach County School District considered additional proposed revisions to its policy regarding the use of forced psychiatric examinations under the Baker Act.

Some policy changes were implemented earlier, after the lawsuit was filed. As a result of those changes, the district has reported that the number of Baker Act uses on school campuses had dropped by more than 80%. However, the district had still 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 policy revisions before the settlement did not include sufficient measures to keep children safe from harm associated with the Baker Act, including the use of force by police.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) also weighed in by filing a statement of interest in the case, in June, before the settlement. The DOJ 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.