Although district by district statistics are hard to come by, Miami-Dade schools police refer students for involuntary psychiatric exams at a higher rate than several other large districts. Nearly two students in every 1,000 were Baker Acted this year in Miami-Dade .
In Broward County, the second largest district in the state behind Miami-Dade, there were 120 students taken by police for exams this school year, or fewer than .5 students per 1,000.
That makes Miami-Dade’s rate four times higher than Broward’s. Dade’s rate is also higher than that of Orange County, the state’s fourth largest district, and slightly higher than Palm Beach and Pinellas, the fifth- and seventh-largest districts, respectively, according to the districts’ available records.
Joe Puleo, a staff representative with the Florida State Fraternal Order of Police, told The Herald that Hurley has been pressuring officers to Baker Act students who misbehave. Puleo believes the district may actually be Baker Acting more students than the official numbers reflect.
Mental health experts view the Baker Act as an important, but extreme measure for children and adults with serious mental health disorders and who are at risk of harming themselves or others.
Students brought in for evaluation under the Baker Act must be released unless they are charged with a crime, volunteer for treatment or authorities take measures to commit them. Puleo believes that the increase in the use of the Baker Act has resulted in a decrease in crime statistics.
Several employees of the Miami-Dade schools police department wrote to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement this year with complaints about the police chief, Hurley , including concerns about the department’s use of the Baker Act.
The agency decided the information was “insufficient” to start a criminal probe , according to a May 18 letter from FDLE’s director of executive investigations to Dade schools chief, Alberto Carvalho.
Miami-Dade school administrators say the rise in Baker Act reflects a change in policy and is in line with the increased use of the Baker Act statewide, both for children and adults.
Statewide, the number of Baker Act exams — for everyone, not just children — rose 79 percent from 2000 to 2010. In Miami-Dade, the number more than tripled from 1999 to 2009 to about 16,700 exams.
“If we were out of alignment with what state and other local agencies are reporting, then perhaps we would have concern,” said Ava Goldman, administrative director for special education and educational services. “But our data are in alignment with the dramatic increase across the state and the nation on the volume of Baker Act. So we’re in alignment.”
Millie Fornell, an assistant superintendent, said broader problems — the struggling economy, foreclosures, homelessness — put children under tremendous stress. After two major crises at Miami-Dade high schools — a 2006 sex scandal at Miami Northwestern and a 2009 fatal stabbing at Coral Gables — Fornell said employees realized it’s “everybody’s responsibility” to report problems.
“When a student is talking to a counselor and saying ‘I want to hurt myself, I don’t want to live,’ you don’t want to err on the side of not reporting it and not taking precautions with that student,” Fornell said. “We’re avoiding a lot of things from happening.”