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Baker Act use on students in Florida schools is 'costly and cruel,' Southern Poverty Law Center report finds

Report cites case study of Palm Beach County schools
WPTV Investigative Reporter Dave Bohman speaks to civil rights attorney Shahar Pasch in March 2021.jpg
Posted at 12:46 PM, Mar 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-24 17:50:49-04

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Costly and cruel. That's what the Southern Poverty Law Center claims it found when examining the use of the Baker Act in schools throughout Florida.

The recently published report from the SPLC said schools in Florida misuse the Baker Act by sending children as young as five years old to hospitals for mental health examinations, often without informing their parents first.

The report said "schools, police, and foster care facilities in Florida routinely use the Baker Act" on children who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, children with disabilities, and children who are just being disruptive.

"In each of these instances, the Baker Act is not only an inappropriate intervention, it is a harmful and often illegal one," the report noted.

SEE ALSO: Florida schools still aren't required to track and report Baker Act use

"Florida is excessively higher than any other state that collects the data," said Barcardi Jackson, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, in an interview with WPTV Contact 5.

The report detailed a case study close to home concerning the use of the Baker Act in the School District of Palm Beach County.

The SPLC report said in the School District of Palm Beach County, "children with disabilities and Black children are significantly overrepresented in this Baker Acted population, when compared with their rates in the District overall."

"It is something that is ingrained in our culture," said Jackson of the findings. "We see Black children as threats, we see then as violent, we see them as less deserving of grace or leeway."

The Palm Beach County School Board is set to discuss the report's findings at a meeting Wednesday evening.

Last summer, Contact 5 spoke with Tamara Gayle, a mother who's son was Baker Acted after throwing books in class.

Tamara Gayle
Tamara Gayle says the Palm Beach County School District overreacted to her son's behavior and had him involuntarily examined under the Baker Act.

Gayle's son was just five years old at the time he was Baker Acted. Gayle told Contact 5 he was still traumatized from the incident.

"He will get up in the middle of the night, and he will, you know, 'take the handcuffs off of me, I'm not a criminal.' And he kept having, like, meltdowns," Gayle told us in an interview last year.

The Southern Poverty Law Center report said that from "the 2016-17 school year to the 2019-20 school year, the District Baker Acted elementary school children 254 times, comprising one-fifth of all reported incidents of Baker Act use in the District." The report also said that "40 out of the 59 children who were 5, 6, or 7 years old when they were Baker Acted over the last four years were Black children."

"Black children are often 'adultified' and seen as older than they are," Jackson told Contact 5.

Shahar Pasch is a local attorney and has worked with parents whose children were Baker Acted in school settings, including children with autism. She told Contact 5 that "Baker Acts cause trauma" when used on juveniles.

Pasch is concerned that with more children returning to the classroom, schools will use the Baker Act more often on children with autism, who are often sensitive to changes in routine.

"Now these kids, some of them have been out of school for over a year, are going to come back to an environment that looks very different from what they left, and their anxiety level is going to be way up," Pasch said.

Contact 5 reached out to the School District of Palm Beach County for a comment on the Southern Poverty Law Center's report and findings. In a statement, a district spokesperson wrote:

"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."


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