WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CBS12) — A group of Palm Beach County parents and students, along with Disability Rights Florida and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, sued the School District Of Palm Beach County.
They claim the school district illegally initiated involuntary psychiatric examinations on students, according to a release from the Southern Poverty Law Center. These students are taken from their classrooms and transported—handcuffed and in the back of police cars—to psychiatric facilities, where they wait hours or days for an examination to be completed.
The lawsuit describes how School District Police illegally use the Florida Mental Health Act, also known as the Baker Act, on hundreds of students each year to involuntary psychiatric examinations. The officers then take these children, some as young as five years old, to psychiatric facilities without their parents’ input, consent and, sometimes, over their objections.
Records show that district officers knowingly use the Baker Act on children whose behavior was due to autism, even though the law does not permit psychiatric examinations on this basis, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. They also fail to consult mental health resources, including mobile crisis teams and the children’s own therapists. The lawsuit alleges that these actions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Florida Educational Equity Act, as well as parents’ and students’ rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
During the 2016-2020 school years, the school district initiated at least 1,216 involuntary examinations against their students, including 252 times on elementary school students.
The lawsuit explains that the traumatic experience of involuntary examination is unnecessary and counterproductive for the overwhelming majority of children subjected to it. The lawsuit describes how one nine-year-old 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 nine-year-old with autism was deemed a threat after he reportedly wanted to “stab” another child with a plastic fork.
Both were sent to a psychiatric facility for an involuntary psychiatric examination.
“Childhood traumatic stress can have significant and lasting effects on a child’s development,” the lawsuit states. “It can impact a child’s physical and mental development, make it more difficult to learn and focus, and impact a child’s way of thinking about the world around them and their own future.”
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 eight, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Students with disabilities are also disproportionately represented in these numbers.
“Hundreds of students in Palm Beach County are needlessly being pushed out of school and placed in psychiatric facilities for the most trivial and inappropriate reasons that fall far short of what is allowed under the Baker Act,” said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP. “Sadly, Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to this overzealous practice and we’re suing to put an end to it.”
Five students with disabilities, along with their parents, are filing the lawsuit against the school district after they were unlawfully removed from their school and involuntarily held for examination in a psychiatric facility. They are being represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Disability Rights Florida, Pasch Law Group, Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Inc., and the National Center for Youth Law.
“Disability Rights Florida is significantly concerned about the Palm Beach County School District’s overuse of involuntary commitment of students with disabilities that do not meet the statutory definition of mental illness, as well as those students who have an emotional/behavioral disorder. These students are denied appropriate supports and services and access to a high-quality education,” said Ann Siegel, legal director of Disability Rights Florida.
“We believe it is time for the Palm Beach County School Board to revise its policies and practices, provide appropriate resources and supports to students with disabilities, and we hope they will consider working with all those involved in this suit to resolve this matter through the use of a legally binding structured negotiation agreement to protect the students of Palm Beach County School District from the misuse of involuntary commitment of students.”
On top of damages, the group is asking for 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
- Providing school district staff with accurate training about the Baker Act and the potential harms of unnecessary involuntary examinations
Mark Astor, a local attorney who deals with Baker Act cases, sent the following statement to CBS12 News Tuesday night:
I think this is an excellent first step in not only bringing some justice to parents whose children have been wrongfully Baker Acted, but may create a deterrence to the School Board and school police from continuing to use the Baker Act as a disciplinary and law enforcement tool.
The Baker Act was created to allow the State to take temporary custody of an individual, including a minor, only when there is a need for emergency stabilization. A child who is suffering from anxiety and/or depression, or who has suffered trauma, does not meet Baker Act criteria just because they indicate a desire to harm themselves. When a parent sends their child off to school, they are expecting them to be in a loving and supportive environment, not subject to the “perp walk” if they go to a school counsellor for help. The fact that parents are being kept out of the loop until their child has already been “cuffed and stuffed” is unconscionable.