Baker Act Brings all the Lawyers to the Yard

Image with text explaining: What is the Baker Act? A controversial Florida law instructing law enforcement officers to arrest and administer involuntary psych exams on mentally ill people who appear to pose a danger to themselves or others. It’s not supposed to be used on the basis of a developmental, social, or intellectual disability. However, children with developmental and intellectual disabilities are “Baker Acted” frequently.

When I read this story today on CNN, I was kind of shocked and not shocked at the same time. There is a war in this country going on with people who deal with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities and other cognitive challenges. For a long time, people who dealt with such challenges were often just tossed aside, dismissed disgracefully as unwanted and unreachable, therefore subject to horrifying hospitalizations and institutional lives that left them completely devoid of the rich life they deserved. Thankfully, things have somewhat changed and there is a huge push for people from all walks of life to receive quality care and services that bring them into the sun to enjoy a fulfilling life in whatever capacity they are capable.

Without completely writing a full synopsis of the story, I will briefly describe what I got out of it. A child, with developmental disabilities, has a tantrum in school. Since it is a news story, we don’t get the entire perspective. We learn of a child who possibly threw chairs in a classroom setting. There is no complete description of what transpired, so we don’t know. What we do know, is that after or during this event, the police were called after a “licensed, mental health care professional” decided to commit the girl to an involuntary inpatient situation. This all happened (according to the statements in the article) BEFORE the parent had the opportunity to intervene, help, be contacted or otherwise take part in the decision. The responding crisis professional made the decision and the police were called. The police mention that “she’s actually been very pleasant” in a highlighted comment in the article.

The text of the Baker Act (which was used in justifying the commitment of the young student), according to this article on Wikipedia, states, “Criteria are not met simply because a person has a mental illness, appears to have mental problems, takes psychiatric medication, has an emotional outburst, or refuses voluntary examination. Furthermore, if there are family members or friends that will help prevent any potential and present threat of substantial harm, the criteria for involuntary examination are also not met.” So, if the school followed even the most basic part of the law’s criteria, the involuntary commitment could not have occurred lawfully.

Picture of a child with their head down, sitting alone

No, I’m not even remotely trained in law, education, intervention etc, but sadly as a parent of special needs children, I have been in the middle of several meltdowns with my children in schools. While children have been acting up in school for countless years, overcrowding, inclusion and a host of other issues have led to an uptick in incidents and extremely controversial methods of dealing with them.

With the advent of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), schools were taxed with the job of ensuring that children with disabilities be given a FAPE (free and appropriate public education) in the LRE (least restrictive environment). This is a fantastic idea, IN THEORY. So as not to be too theoretical, I will use my son’s experience as an example. In his inclusionary setting, the elementary school did a somewhat good job with his education; the academics. His IEP was pretty detailed and for a majority of the time, he did thrive academically. Behaviorally? That was an entirely different situation.

He was given a personal assistant, due to a myriad of challenges, and this backfired on more than one occasion. At the end of 4th grade, I went to the picnic that the class had in a local park. His assistant was there, and she proceeded to tell me that “your son almost caused the breakup of my marriage and the loss of my sanity”. “Wow, thanks for that bit of information; you are TOO kind!” (what I wanted to say) I did however, ask what would prompt her to be so cruel and say such horrible things to me. She proceeded to tell me that my child was not worth the little bit of money that she made taking care of him and that he should be in a different setting. Since I’m not a member of Fight Club, I just walked away.

The following year, I had a conversation with the principal that changed my once endearing opinion of her. She told me in no uncertain terms, that my son would “never receive his high school diploma” and would be “pursuing a certificate”. In other words, his potential was nothing like she originally said and it shocked and stunned me. [He has his high school diploma and despite needing remedial classes, he did well on several areas of his college entrance exams] At the end of 5th grade, his aide, who later laughed and told me that he “shocked her when he raised his fists” ~ never touching her~ after she put her hands on him to help calm him down, said cruel things to me in a store once that I will never forget. She said, “That boy sure is a handful, I don’t know how you put up with that. He would have gotten a good whippin’ every time he pulled that sh** on me” and that “he needed parents who would do what was necessary”. THANKS.

It was explicitly written in all the school documents that she was never, EVER to touch him. Respecting his personal space was something that was in his IEP and even his classmates helped him and made him feel welcome while respecting that. Due to fact that he raised his hands in alarm when she started rubbing his shoulders to calm him down, [and his hands were closed with a pencil in one], never touching anyone, it was deemed a violent response and he was forbidden to attend his farewell picnic with the rest of his graduating class. He was “a risk” and wasn’t able to go. I took him out of school for the day, took him out to breakfast and for a fun day of activity. I never forgot how they treated him though.

Chart describing the spectrum of LRE placements from Least Restrictive to Most Restrictive. Starting with General classes (least) to special classes, special schools, home instruction and (most) hospital or institution.

For a great majority of parents with children living with special needs, the LRE is a goal. Some parents demand a LRE that might not be as restrictive as the child truly needs, leading to gaps in services and challenges for everyone. A good school team, working together with parents, educators and mental health professionals, in theory, should be able to come up with a quality LRE that works for all. There may be adjustments along the way (adding or removing assistants, adding or modifying accommodations on the IEP etc) but there are times when it becomes an absolute nightmare. Naturally, this happened to me.

My son was getting bullied terribly. When I brought this up to the team, his teachers, the psychology associate working there, ANYONE who was an adult, I was told that I was “hearing things that weren’t true” and “making a mountain out of a molehill”. One weekend day, I was in my kitchen, when I saw two young children at my door, flanked by a parent. They were friendly and smiling and their father was with them. They explained that they were friends of my son and could no longer to on without saying anything about what they say going on with my son and got permission to come see me. On the bus, children were getting him to say cuss words, then telling on him, laughing and high-fiving as he was written up and got in trouble. They put a “kick me, I’m a retard” sign on him, taking it off as needed so other adults couldn’t see it. Finally, the kids couldn’t deal with it anymore and told their parents. The next school day I called the school, only to find out they had him in lockdown, under supervision by a school resource person, due to the fact that he tried to kill himself by jumping out of a third floor window: HE’D HAD ENOUGH.

Even still, at the next IEP, when I had a lawyer come for the second time, as they viciously fought to keep him out of a special school placement, one of the people there asked, “How can you want him to be educated among all disabled students instead of a ‘regular’ school?” I told her that I would rather have him be among special needs students than the hatred and bullying he was experiencing at the hands of his current school. He started the new school, where he thrived in an IT vocational path and graduated, even being invited back at the “alumni of the year” a few years later. Take that LOL.

Schools are at a great disadvantage when it comes to funding, assistants (including their pay) and a great many other factors. The little girl in the original news story above deserves better than to be escorted out of a school by police, her parents nowhere in sight, as she’s whisked away to an uncertain location, frightened and alone. Schools have the ability to look beyond the “simplicity” of committing a child under the guise of an “act” and contact the parents, place the child in a safe place within the school and give the parent an opportunity to rectify the situation and save the child from such trauma. Either do it the correct way, or stop the pretend guise of inclusion, at least until you actually have what you need in place to make it work.

Does your district have such a dangerous law in effect?

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