The acting police chief, Maj. Gerald Kitchell, dismissed allegations that the department has used the law to influence crime statistics.
From 2007 to 2011, the number of crime incidents at Dade schools dropped by 42 percent, to 1,856 incidents in 2011.
Similarly, the number of juvenile arrests in the schools has fallen 35 percent: 1,024 in 2011 compared to 1,579 in 2007.
Baker Act numbers are heading in the opposite direction: In 2006-07, there were 427 calls to the police for mental health help, resulting in 322 students shuttled by school cops for exams. This year, there have been 1,042 calls and at least 646 students Baker Acted. So, calls for assistance have increased 144 percent and the Baker Act transports about 100 percent.
Kitchell said factors other than the Baker Act have reduced the number of arrests, including a shift toward civil citations by the juvenile justice system. Also, officers can use their own judgment on how harsh to be with kids. “When it’s a misdemeanor the officer has the discretion to charge the child or warn and dismiss the child.”
Mental health experts say the large increase in students Baker Acted warrants close examination.
“I would want to know what caused that increase,” said Martha Lenderman, the state’s former Baker Act director. She said certain events, like a major hurricane or a toppled economy, can add stress to families and children. But sometimes teachers, faced with unruly students, may call police rather than opt for a different disciplinary tack. An arrest or an involuntary psychiatric exam does not necessarily get the student the immediate help they need, she said.
“Sometimes a call to police for an arrest or Baker Act is not about helping kids,” she said , speaking about schools in general and not any specific district. “It’s about ‘Get them off my campus — at least until tomorrow.’ ”
It’s difficult to track statewide how often school police and counselors apply the Baker Act for students. The state’s form to initiate an exam has a check box to indicate whether the minor was: in juvenile justice custody; in a shelter, in foster care or in school. Record administrators believe that box isn’t always checked and budget problems have put the Baker Act Reporting Center, which is a clearinghouse at the University of South Florida, behind on data entry and analysis. Also complicating the tracking: how schools count Baker Act incidents varies widely.
Miami-Dade isn’t the only district to have increased vigilance. In Pinellas County, the school district ramped up mental health training for all employees several years ago when several students committed suicide after having not seen counselors. The training resulted in more calls for counselors and police to assess students. But the number of student Baker Act cases did not rise dramatically, as it has in Miami-Dade.
“Our number has stayed pretty steady,” said Donna Sicilian, supervisor of the school social work department at Pinellas County Schools. In 2010-11, there were 145 Baker Act cases initiated by school social workers for the 104,000 student body, or 1.4 student per 1,000. Those figures don’t include cases initiated by law enforcement officers, because the district partners with several agencies and doesn’t track those. In reality, the total numbers could be higher.
Ira Burnim, legal director at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C., said many schools have actually taken a more punitive approach — shape up or else — for kids with behavior issues, mental disorders and emotional problems. “It’s not so easy to distinguish a kid who has discipline issues and a kid who has a mental health disorder — a kid that’s bad vs a kid’s that mad.”
Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman said that about half of the students who get arrested have at least one mental health disorder. “That does not necessarily mean they meet the criteria [for the Baker Act],” he said.
Leifman said the 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project approached the Dade school police department several years ago, because they saw cases of students with mental health problems being handled inappropriately. More officers have been trained in crisis intervention since then, roughly about 40 to 50 percent of the Dade school officers, Kaba said.
Lenderman, who now leads training programs on the state’s mental health law, said arresting or Baker Acting kids is not the only ways for schools to address problems. “Generally, there are indicators that a child is in need of help, and early intervention can prevent either of those situations from occurring, both of which can have significant consequences for the child.”
Miami Herald staff writers Frances Robles contributed to this report.