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We Shouldn't 'Baker Act' Young Children for 'Acting Out'

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Involuntary commitment. In California, it’s called 5150. In Massachusetts, it’s a Section 12. In Florida, it’s the Baker Act. But right now, we’re talking about Florida. Whatever the Baker Act was meant to do, it wasn’t meant to do it to 6-year-olds.

Yet in Florida, 6-year-old Nadia King was involuntarily committed for two days of psychiatric evaluation after a “throwing a temper tantrum” at school. The school claimed King “was destroying school property, attacking staff, out of control and running out of school.” King has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and global development delay, and is being evaluated for autism.

Duval County Public Schools told CBS News they reviewed the way the school handled the situation and found it to be compliant with the law and in the best interest of King and the students at the school.

Florida’s Baker Act was established around 50 years ago and allows mental health facilities to hold a person for psychiatric evaluation for up to 72 hours. This typically happens when someone is viewed as a danger to themselves or others. 

It’s certainly true that 6-year-olds have threatened suicide and some, unfortunately, have completed the act. But for schools — with the help of law enforcement personnel and mental health professionals — to “Baker Act” children is an extreme interpretation of the law.

All children (not just children with disabilities!) experience occasional mood swings and outbursts. School personnel are supposed to be trained to handle these situations. But “zero tolerance” policies for “acting out” and threatening school property have led to such excesses and others, such as the use of in-school restraints and seclusion.

Restraints and seclusion are now being called into question, especially since they have been used capriciously and brutally, especially on children with disabilities. This is why Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are created with procedures to follow if a child has a meltdown. Unfortunately too often schools don’t have enough staff members trained to help students with disabilities, or staff members simply do not pay attention to IEPs.

Of course, such treatment is the exception rather than the rule. Some states are beginning to enact laws regarding restraint and seclusion. And many well-trained special educators would never dream of treating mentally ill or neurodivergent students in this way. Two-day commitment away from parents is excessive for a 6-year-old. Police officers taking children away in cruisers before notifying parents is unconscionable. The law specifies that minors can be held for only 12 hours before a mental health examination is initiated. For minors, notification must be provided as soon as the child arrives at the facility.

Florida state lawmaker Jennifer Webb has introduced a bill to reform the Baker Act. It includes training for school officials and resource officers and establishes rules on when a parent should be notified their child might be committed.

“[The Baker Act] should only be used as a last resort,” she told CBS.

Involuntary commitment is a difficult and emotional issue when it is applied to adults with serious mental illness, in particular schizophrenia and psychosis. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about young children with – possibly – some behavior problems. The Baker Act is the wrong approach to take in these cases.

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Originally published: February 23, 2020
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