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Palm Beach, FL: Call to stop using Baker Act on disabled children

Aug 5, 2023, Florida Public Radio: Advocates push for changes to Baker Act policy in Palm Beach County schools

After the school district agreed to pay $440,000 to resolve a lawsuit over its use of the Baker Act on students, some advocates want more protections for children.

Disability rights advocates want the School District of Palm Beach County to do more to protect students from being inappropriately detained under the Baker Act, formally known as the Florida Mental Health Act.

That’s after the district agreed to pay $440,000 to resolve a lawsuit claiming school officials were misusing the Baker Act on children with disabilities.

The state law allows for people to undergo a psychiatric evaluation against their will — including children — if they represent an imminent danger to themselves or others because of their mental illness.
Too often, the law is misused against children with developmental disabilities like autism, according to the advocacy organization Disability Rights Florida.

Ann Siegel is the legal director for Disability Rights Florida, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit against the SDPBC back in 2021.

“Many of the students that have been Baker Acted over these years have been students with developmental disabilities,” said Siegel. “And we believe that's an inappropriate use as the statute is specifically designed for people with mental health issues.”

U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon issued a final judgment in the case on July 5, ordering the SDPBC to pay out nearly half a million dollars to students and family members who brought the case.

The plaintiffs say they represented hundreds of kids who had been detained in recent years, some as young as 5 years old.

“Although [the plaintiffs] and hundreds of other children like them were treated like criminals, they were not charged with a crime,” the plaintiffs argued in a legal filing. “The overwhelming majority of these children did not need or benefit from involuntary examination and were deeply traumatized by the experience. Once sent for an examination, children wait hours or days in a psychiatric facility, also known as a “receiving facility,” without their parents, for an examination by a clinician.”

School board considers policy changes, following lawsuit

In the wake of the lawsuit, the Palm Beach County school board is considering changes to the district’s policies on responding to student mental health crises….


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