Between summer 2015 and 2016, kids under the age of 18 in Florida were subjected to an involuntary psychiatric exam 32,000 times – almost a 50 percent increase over five years.
Under The Florida Mental Health Act, a person can be held and accessed if there’s reason to believe that person has a mental illness or because of their mental illness. This law is also known by its nickname the Baker Act.
For minors, that examination has to start within 12 hours of being held at a facility.
Two years ago, more than 700 cases began at public, private or charter schools in Miami-Dade County, according to The Miami Herald. More than 600 were initiated at schools in Broward County. Not all of these were at public schools.
And the use of the act by public school police has gone down in recent years as officers receive more training in the law.
But the use of the Baker Act by schools and school police has come under new scrutiny.
A mother posted a video on social media of her 7-year-old being taken into custody by school police in handcuffs and Baker Acted.
The incident prompted responses from listeners, too.
— WLRN Public Media (@WLRN) February 9, 2018
"The decision should be made by a team of people, including parents, a guidance counselor, etc. School police aren’t always trained in child psychology."
- Michelle Lopate from Hollywood
"Not without the guardian's approval because a record could be used against kids later in life. I think it should be a recommendation from a school counselor or a psychologist."
- Victor Espinoza from Miami Lakes
"I think it should be by some sort of committee or board, which should include educators (and not just the child’s teachers), mental health professionals, child welfare professionals and the police."
- Dee Grant from Hollywood Hills
Miami-Dade Schools say the district police now have to get the approval from a lieutenant or higher-ranking officer before students are taken for a psychiatric evaluation against their will.
WLRN’s Tom Hudson gathered editorial page editors from South Florida's major newspapers to evaluate all sides of the issue: Nancy Ancrum for The Miami Herald, Rick Christie for The Palm Beach Post and Rosemary O’Hara for The Sun Sentinel.
WLRN: This report from the state, dated in November, got new publicity in the last week or so. And of course, this social media from this mom surfaced. What are your thoughts about what we saw here?
O'HARA: When I learned about the uptick in the number of students being Baker Acted in schools, I thought there’s something going on here.
It reminded me of a couple of years ago when we were having a similar conversation about kids being handcuffed and arrested for bad behavior. In that response, we thought we don’t want kids to have arrest records; we want to give them civil citations. So I find it surprising there’s been this uptick in the number of children who are being Baker Acted.
On the one hand, it’s hard without walking a mile in the shoes of a teacher. And so much is being asked of our public schools these days. It’s hard to know what is happening. They can’t talk about it. The laws on privacy say they can’t tell this story.
On the other hand, parents have a role, too. They need to send their kids to school ready to learn. I think there needs to be a real examination of what’s going on here. Do those kids really need the help? Or is it an over-reaction to what used to get kids sent to the principal’s office?
WLRN: Are police officers or teachers or other school personnel from public, private and charter schools over-reacting when students are exhibiting bad behavior?
ANCRUM: Baker Acting the students should be the rare exception. The problem here is that not every player in this scenario is on the same page, working with the same information. Parents may know that their child has a behavior problem. Teachers may know a certain child has a history of bad behavior, maybe for mental illness, maybe because of some sort of special needs. The police might not know that. And they come in and do what policemen do.
WLRN: Right. Try to control the situation immediately and use all the different types of tools they’ve been trained to use.
In the case of Miami-Dade, I’ve had a source say in the last several years Miami-Dade County Public Schools police officers have received training on assessing a child and understanding the guidelines of the Baker Act and what is necessary to invoke that act.
ANCRUM: And teachers have not. No teacher should be hit by a child or by one of their students. That's a non-starter. However, each student demands having a record or a portfolio of what the problem just might be. There are also a lot of parents who are in denial. It’s a such a traumatizing event for a child of the ages that we’re talking about. Everyone needs to work together to prevent that.
WLRN: Miami-Dade police officers do receive some training on the act.
ANCRUM: They do receive some training. Miami-Dade County Public Schools recently instituted a new method where a higher-up, like a lieutenant, has to sign off on Baker Acting a child.
That brings new concerns. We would have to look closely at disparities. We already see disparities in what Rosemary was talking about, in terms of young children who are arrested for acting out. If they are black, they are handcuffed and taken to the police station. If they are white, or possibly Hispanic, they are not, and it is dealt with in the school and with the parents.
I can’t imagine - though I would like to - I can’t imagine we might not see some of that same dynamic happening here even with this moderate fix.
WLRN: Rick Christie, how do you see this? What’s the lens that you’re looking at?
CHRISTIE: The lens for me is one of being careful with how far we’re taking this. I heard your previous speakers say that there’s a concern here with using it too often against poorer kids and kids of color and stigmatizing them. I’d have to agree with that. I think too often with things like this, and disciplinary things like this, they tend to lean heavier, or come down harder, on poorer and kids of color.
ANCRUM: Baking Acting children is really a continuation of how the state of Florida really mishandles the treatment of people with mental illness. And what we see increasingly is our jails becoming the de facto treatment centers for people who are mentally ill. In Miami-Dade, we have a very committed longtime judge Steve Leifman. I talk to him quite often on this issue. He has made inroads on this issue locally and statewide.
O'HARA: We are third from the bottom in our funding of mental health.
But back on the schools issue, now that there’s been this flashpoint, our eyes have opened. People are concerned about what they’re seeing. It’s really incumbent on the school systems to come forward and say what are they facing. I’d be curious to be know the process when children act out. If they start hitting a teacher, is the first step to call the police? It wasn’t long ago, zero tolerance was in our schools.
Maybe if the public better understood the challenges that the schools have with behavioral issues, how they’re dealing with it, and what they need help with, something good would come from all this.
WLRN: Public schools are a flashpoint for this, of course. Not only because of the public dollars involved but the sheer size of our public school institutions here in South Florida, which has three of the largest in the country.
It’s a flashpoint, but some of the school data, and the school police usage of the Baker Act, at least in Miami-Dade County, has gone down as the police force has gotten more training. These kids who are being Baker Acted are often having this initiated against them in places much different than public school grounds.
CHRISTIE: That goes to Nancy’s larger point about Florida’s lack of spending regarding mental health. And the state is woefully behind on that. As she said, our county jails are really our largest mental health facilities, and it’s probably worse for juveniles who are not being treated properly in a lot of the homes visited by our social workers.
O'HARA: I do have personal experience with a member of my family. People use the Baker Act out of desperation when they don’t know what else to do. What help is there for families? I would hope that what’s happening in the schools is that similar kind of desperation of "what can I do?"
As I learned in my own family, once they are released, they are just let go. If they don’t have the money, there’s no follow-up treatment. The cycle just continues. We really need to look, once a kid has been flagged as having severe emotional disturbances, that require this intervention, what then happens?