The optics alone are jarring. But the reality of a 7-year-old child being taken, in handcuffs, from Coral Way K-8 Center in Miami and being put in a police car is a shock, wholly incongruous with what a day at school is supposed to look like.
This little boy was removed from school under the Baker Act. That is, taken by public schools police officers for an involuntary psychiatric evaluation after he, in the midst of a meltdown, kicked and hit a teacher. It’s allowed by law, the Florida Mental Health Act.
The images of Mercy Alvarez’s son have spawned heated debates communitywide — and beyond — about the best way to handle a child who acts out in school. In response, Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho on Saturday released several revisions to the district’s policy, which is the purview of the school police department.
The issue clearly has struck a nerve. Many parents say that subjecting overaggressive students to the Baker Act happens far too often. But some perspective is in order:
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In Miami-Dade, the number of erratic or violent students who have been forcibly removed from school under the Baker Act has plummeted, from 600 during the 2011-2012 school year to 247 in the 2016-2017 school year. And of those 247 students, 30 were in elementary school.
Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the Herald Editorial Board that the encouraging decline is the result of more-aggressive training for teachers, counselors, principals and school police to identify kids who may have special needs, a mental illness or a disruptive home life.
Ultimately, whether to Baker Act a child without parental consent is the judgment call of school police. Under the new policy, an officer called to the scene of an incident must seek a second opinion from a police supervisor with the rank of lieutenant or above.
In addition, the new directives: require school staff to exhaust all other means to subdue an unruly student before seeking police intervention; reemphasize crisis intervention training; expand an existing mandate that police officers try to contact a student’s parents or guardian to include school staff. The goal is to prevent a Baker Act case by having parents voluntarily take their child for evaluation and subsequent treatment, which, indeed, is preferable; mandate that unless a child is presenting significant harm to himself or others, an ambulance or medical transport will be used — with an appropriate school staff member accompanying the student — as opposed to a police vehicle.
The final policy revision would ensure that, where appropriate, a child is transported from school without handcuffs or restraints. This is a tricky, however. As upsetting as they are, restraints can keep a bad situation from getting worse, dissuade an agitated child from running off once outside — and into traffic, say — or at least slow the child down.
Safety and security must be paramount. No teacher or school employee should have to tolerate punches and blows from any student; other students should not have their own studies disrupted and their safety imperiled by a dangerous classmate.
Parents, too, must be realistic and engaged. School administrators lament that too many parents are in denial, failing to get their repeatedly unruly child evaluated, or even acknowledge there’s a problem. They might fear the unfortunate stigma of a child in trouble. But doing nothing is far worse.