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 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.