Faculties Sued For Sending College students With Disabilities To Psych Wards

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida – Lawyers for disabled and minority children this week sued Palm Beach County public schools for their practice of forcing hundreds of students each year to undergo a mental evaluation in mental health facilities.

The advocacy groups called the involuntary exams “excessive and illegal” and said in a federal lawsuit that the school district had withheld educational opportunities for hundreds of children and inflicted unnecessary trauma by forcing them into psychiatric centers for non-threatening behavioral incidents.

Florida’s Mental Health Act, commonly known as the Baker Act, gives police, judges, and psychiatrists the power to require a person to undergo psychological evaluation if they appear to have a mental illness and there is a “significant likelihood” that it is possible for them or themselves to do so cause serious harm to others.

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But in many cases, the lawsuit alleges, the school district has violated state and federal law by relying on the Baker Act to involuntarily engage young children in situations for which the law was not intended.

“School employees, including (school district) police officers, regularly confiscate children for involuntary investigation who apparently do not meet the criteria of the Bakers Act,” the lawsuit said.

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the county schools routinely handcuff and take young children to psychiatric centers because of their parents’ objections, often for “normal childish behavior” or for misconduct due to developmental disorders that the lawsuit says are “specific to the (Baker Act) definition of mental illness. “

The district’s application of the Bakers Act disproportionately affects disabled students and people of color, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit, filed by Disability Rights Florida, the NAACP, and five students and their families, comes three months after the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report singling out the county public schools for overuse of the Baker Act.

The report found that the district involuntarily hired 1,217 students, including 254 elementary school students, between 2016 and 2020.

Students younger than 8 years old were signed 59 times in four years, the report said, while 5-year-old students were involuntarily signed eight times.

That report sparked weeks of negotiations to reach a legal settlement between the district and the coalition, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, the National Center for Youth Law, and two law firms.

However, the two sides failed to come to an agreement and set the stage for the lawsuit.

Among the examples of so-called overuse of the Baker Act, the lawsuit mentions a 2017 case, first reported by the Palm Beach Post last month, in which a North Grade Elementary administrator urged a 7 year old To have girls locked up involuntarily.

The school district said in a statement that the application of the Baker Act was compliant with state law and that its schools had done everything possible to cater to the psychological needs of students.

Over the past two years, the administrators say, the district has set up a behavioral and mental health department and hired dozens of additional psychologists to fill its schools.

“It is the school district’s position to meet and exceed the needs of students with mental health problems,” the district said.

The lawsuit demands that the families concerned receive financial compensation, that the district stop any illegal use of the Baker Act, and that the school authorities better train their staff and prosecute their application of the law.

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