WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (CBS12) –
A group of Palm Beach County parents and students along with Disability Rights sued Florida and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP the Palm Beach County School District.
They claim the school district illegally initiated involuntary psychiatric examinations on students, a statement from the Southern Poverty Law Center said. These students are taken from their classrooms and – handcuffed and in the back of police cars – transported to psychiatric facilities, where they wait hours or days for an examination to be completed.
The legal action describes how school district police illegally use the Florida Mental Health Act, also known as the Baker Act, on hundreds of students for involuntary psychiatric exams each year. The officers bring these children, some of them only five years old, to psychiatric facilities without the parents’ intervention, consent and sometimes against their objections.
Records show that county officials knowingly use the Baker Act on children whose behavior was attributed to autism, although the law does not allow psychiatric evaluation on that basis, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. They also do not consult mental health resources, including mobile crisis teams and the children’s own therapists. The lawsuit alleges that these acts violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Florida Educational Equity Act, and the rights of parents and students under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
During the 2016-2020 school years, the school district initiated at least 1,216 involuntary exams against its students, including 252 times in elementary school students.
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The lawsuit states that the traumatic experience of an involuntary examination is unnecessary and counterproductive for the overwhelming majority of children. The lawsuit describes how a nine-year-old with autism was classified as a “threat to others” after being upset about being unable to use a computer and allegedly throwing a stuffed animal at a teacher. Another nine-year-old with autism was identified as a threat after he reportedly tried to “stab” another child with a plastic fork.
Both came to a psychiatric facility for an involuntary psychiatric examination.
“Traumatic stress in childhood can have a significant and lasting impact on a child’s development,” the lawsuit said. “It can affect a child’s physical and mental development, make learning and concentration difficult, and affect a child’s way of thinking about the world around them and their own future.”
Black students are twice as likely to be taken on involuntary exams as white students, and racial disparities are even greater among children under eight, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Students with disabilities are also disproportionately represented in these figures.
“Hundreds of students in Palm Beach County are unnecessarily pushed out of school and into psychiatric care for the most trivial and inappropriate reasons, well below what is allowed under the Baker Act Facilities, ”said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP. “Unfortunately, black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately exposed to this overzealous practice and we are suing to put an end to it.”
Five students with disabilities and their parents file lawsuits against the school district after they were illegally expelled from school and involuntarily taken to a mental health facility for evaluation. They are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Disability Rights Florida, the Pasch Law Group, the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Inc., and the National Center for Youth Law.
Disabled Rights Florida is very concerned about the overuse of students with disabilities by the Palm Beach County School District who do not meet the legal definition of mental illness, as well as students with an emotional / behavioral disorder. These students are being denied adequate support, services and access to quality education, ”said Ann Siegel, legal director of Disability Rights Florida.
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“We believe the time has come for the Palm Beach County School Board to review its policies and practices to provide adequate resources and support to students with disabilities, and we hope they will consider working with everyone on this lawsuit Parties involved to work together to address this matter through the use of a legally binding structured negotiation agreement to protect Palm Beach County School District students from abuse of the students’ involuntary obligation. “
In addition to the damage, the group is calling for systemic changes in the school district’s application of the Bakers Act, including:
- Empowering parents to make decisions about whether their children are involuntarily screened
- Require that trained medical and psychological professionals, not the police, advise parents or make decisions about whether to conduct an involuntary examination
- Eliminated the requirement to handcuff all students while being transported to a reception facility
- Applying less restrictive and effective outpatient treatments to children who really need psychiatric treatment
- Providing accurate training to school district staff about the Baker Act and the potential harms of unnecessary involuntary investigation
CBS12 News reached out to a local attorney handling cases under the Baker Act for comment. We are waiting for your feedback.
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