WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CBS12) — A new case study by the Southern Poverty Law Center describes the sometimes harmful effects of invoking the Florida Mental Health Act, otherwise known as the "Baker Act."
According to researchers, Palm Beach County serves as a perfect case study for misuse of the Baker Act in school settings.
Researchers found that the school district has Baker acted over 1,200 students in the past four years. They call the trend "deeply troubling" and say that minority students and students with disabilities are disproportionately targeted.
Palm Beach County school district protocol says that school nurses and law enforcement are given training on Baker Acting, and can involuntarily commit a student "if they pose a danger to themselves or others or appears to have a mental illness." However, legal experts who consulted on the case study say that these criteria are insignificant and can result in unnecessary use of the Baker Act.
According to the researchers, the Palm Beach County School District's policy "states that an individual must present a danger to self or others or appear to have a mental illness when in fact both are necessary."
Attorney Shahar Pasch, who contributed to the study, says that the problems go beyond bad guidance - she says the district's training for school police officers who can invoke the Baker Act is insufficient.
"It's very inadequate," Pasch said of the short video school police officers must watch to understand the proper use of the Baker Act. "It was short... it didn't provide accurate guidance about what criteria need to be considered when we determine if a child is appropriate for the Baker Act."
Pasch says she was concerned that the training did not adequately explain mental illness, since many autistic students were Baker Acted (autism is a developmental disability).
"I've seen incident reports where a police officer will say 'I Baker Acted this child due to what I see as Autism," Pasch said.
But the most shocking thing Pasch uncovered in public records requests was the number of young children who have been Baker Acted over the past few years.
"I don't know too many five-year-olds who have been diagnosed with a mental illness," Pasch said.
Palm Beach County School Board members were equally shocked by the findings.
"It's obvious that what we’ve been doing with Baker Acting our children is not the right thing to do," School Board Member, Marcia Andrews said in a meeting. "Any of them who have been put in a police cruiser with handcuffs - the trauma that they’ve gone through and how it’s impacted them, it’s scary. It’s a scary thought how we’re destroying people.”
The board has planned a workshop in April to address the issues.
In a statement to CBS12 News, a spokesperson for the District said "The School District relies on the Baker Act statute as a last resort when children are in danger of hurting themselves or others. The School District continues to work with our community partners to provide a panoply of services to our students with mental health challenges."