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Polk County, FL: Thousands of SPED students incarcerated; many with autism

Nov 2, 2019, Lakeland (FL) Ledger: Baker Acting students on rise in Polk County school district One parent went on a crusade against Polk County Public Schools after his autistic son was Baker Acted. He now has filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the school district. FROSTPROOF — On Sept. 7, 2018, Chris Medley’s 16-year-old autistic son was in a regular classroom during class change at Frostproof High School, sitting at a desk with his head down and wearing noise-blocking earphones because he’s sensitive to loud sounds and chaos. A girl bumped his desk and, being prone to emotional outbursts, he yelled, “STOP IT!” His 22-year, special education teacher was unaware that the boy’s Individualized Education Program allows for him to step out of the classroom to gather his emotions if he’s having an outburst. The IEP is a legal document tailored to an individual student’s needs, and federal law requires schools to adhere to it at all times. Instead, the teacher told him to sit in the back of the classroom. Then several boys in the room started bullying him and the teacher argued with him, further escalating the situation. According to Medley, the incident went on for 15 minutes. It was all too much for the autistic student to handle. And that’s when Medley’s son said he was going to shoot them. Under Florida’s Baker Act, if someone is deemed a threat to themselves or others, they can be taken into custody for up to three days. In addition, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act prohibits a person from “making, posting, or transmitting a threat to conduct a mass shooting or an act of terrorism.” If someone makes a threat, law enforcement can petition the court for a risk protection order “to prevent persons who are at high risk of harming themselves or others from accessing firearms or ammunition.” By The Numbers A look at the number of juveniles who have been Baker Acted in Polk County over the past four years. Neither the school district nor local law enforcement agencies track how many Baker Acted juveniles are autistic. Juvenile Baker Acts ‒ 2016: 812 ‒ 2017: 790 ‒ 2018: 913 ‒ 2019: 670 ‒ Total: 3,439 Number of Individual Juveniles Baker Acted ‒ 2016: 551 ‒ 2017: 509 ‒ 2018: 557 ‒ 2019: 410 ‒ Total: 2,247 *-Source Polk County Sheriff’s Office Total Students Baker Acted from School ‒ 2015-16: 183 ‒ 2016-17: 133 ‒ 2017-18: 128 ‒ 2018-19: 258 ‒ 2019-20 (to date): 46 *-Source Polk County Public Schools What is the Baker Act? The Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, commonly known as the “Baker Act,” allows the involuntary institutionalization and examination of an individual. The Baker Act allows for involuntary examination (what some call emergency or involuntary commitment), which can be initiated by judges, law enforcement officials, physicians or mental health professionals. There must be evidence that the person: 1) possibly has a mental illness and 2) is in danger of becoming a harm to self, harm to others, or is self neglectful. Examinations may last up to 72 hours after a person is deemed medically stable. The boy also was not allowed to call his mother as the school resource officer questioned him without either parent or an attorney present for two hours. District policy states that whenever an incident happens with a student, parents must be called immediately…. Although the school only suspended Medley’s son for one day over the incident, the deputy Baker Acted him. Records obtained by The Ledger from Polk County Public Schools show that Medley’s son was one of 258 students committed under the Baker Act from a school campus last school year — more than double from the 2017-18 school year, when 128 students were taken to a mental health facility. In 2016-17, that number was 133 — down from 183 the year before. By mid-September in the 2019-20 school year, 46 students had been Baker Acted from their school. Neither the school district nor any law enforcement agency in the county differentiates in their reports whether a student or juvenile is autistic. … When asked whether the district has come up with a better way to deal with autistic students rather than Baker Acting them, school district spokesman Jason Geary said the decision to Baker Act a student is not made lightly and is a last resort to protect the student and others…. Special education students who have counseling needs identified in their IEPs have access to mental health counseling through a contract with Bay Care. School Board member and longtime teacher Sarah Fortney says at every board meeting that she wants a psychologist in all 150 schools in the district. But the price tag for that could reach in the tens of millions of dollars. … But the state legislature hasn’t provided sufficient funding for increased mental health counselors in schools. According to data with the Florida Department of Education, Polk County received $2.4 million from the state to hire 21 mental health facilitators and pay for supplies, inpatient care and outpatient counseling. Another $126,240 was allocated for charter schools. “We don’t have any money dedicated to paying for mental health counseling for non-ESE students,” Geary said. According to the 2017 study “Autism Spectrum Disorder and Violence: Threat Assessment Issues,” autism applies to a range of neurodevelopmental disorders that “are not mental illnesses or personality disorders ... but impairments in the development of the brain or central nervous system that typically manifest in early childhood and lead to personal, social, academic, or occupational difficulties.” The report states that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder account for less than 1% of the population and that “most individuals who fall on the spectrum of ASD are neither violent nor criminal.” Instead, some people, like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, have a mental illness or personality disorder, in addition to being autistic. According to the report, out of 73 lone shooter cases, there was strong evidence or some indication for autism in 24 cases. The Sandy Hook shooter “seemed to involve psychopathic callousness and sadism,” in addition to his anxiety, severe obsessive compulsive disorder and autism. The report’s authors also wondered whether the shooter’s early fixated interest in violence became “ominously amplified by psychopathy, with his (severe) obsessive compulsive tendencies further energizing his preparatory actions for violence?”… According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, since 2016, nearly 2,250 individual juveniles were Baker Acted 3,439 times — with some being institutionalized more than once…. Judd said they train every deputy on how to deal with people who have mental health issues, sending them all to crisis intervention training. “We are one of the few agencies in the nation that train 100% of our law enforcement officers — both in detention and law enforcement,” Judd said. “We are very cognizant and sensitive to those who have mental health issues or disabilities.”


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