The June 19 story Number of Miami-Dade students ‘Baker Acted’ on the rise raises more questions than it answers. I know most of the people mentioned in the article either through my work as executive director of The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment or as a member of the Juvenile Justice Board of the 11th Judicial Circuit. While I do not represent these entities in my comments, I can say with certainty that all of them care about children. It is normal for there to be honest disagreement about how best to treat certain incidents involving students, as well as what interventions are appropriate.
Schools have some students who are disruptive to the point that their presence in a classroom has an adverse effect on other students who are there for an education. There are other students who present symptoms that well-trained school counselors recognize as precursors to violence, either representing a danger to themselves or others. The question becomes how to best resolve the issues created by students who fall into either category.
Most juvenile-justice professionals, including school police officers, want to avoid introducing a moderately disruptive student into the juvenile justice system. That system exists for those who have committed egregious acts of violence or criminal behavior, but are under the age of 18. The preferred course of action is to determine the cause of the student’s disruptive behavior; treat that cause; and send the student back to school without a police record. To their credit, our juvenile judges have made great efforts to refer offenders to diversionary programs that preclude their involvement with the juvenile justice system. Further, the recidivism rate for such individuals is very low.
With regard to the students who exhibit suicidal or homicidal ideation, there is no question that psychiatric intervention is required. Columbine and Virginia Tech must have taught us something about the importance of identifying students who are a danger to others. The number of murders committed by 14-24 year olds in Miami-Dade County mandates that we do better in identifying potential perpetrators of violence. The number of suicides among young people is another statistic that requires our immediate attention. Children are dying by their own hands.
The Baker Act is not the answer to all of the ills that befall students in our schools. Properly administered, it is one tool that can enable the determination of a student’s mental state and in my personal opinion, it is not abused. More than 330,000 students go to school every day in this county. Their parents expect that they will come home safely, having learned some things that will enrich their lives and make them productive citizens. Teachers,school administrators, police officers and judges have difficult jobs and make hard decisions. Let’s make sure they have all the tools they need to make informed decisions about all the young people in their care.
Frank DeLaurier, Coral Gables