The School Board and administration of Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS) work to ensure that schools remain temples of learning, institutions that rely on respect, restraint and responsibility. Sometimes, however, a school’s calm and order are tested, whether by an outside emergency or an internal crisis. During these times, M-DCPS is concerned solely with the safety and security of students, teachers, and staff.
Recently, one of our students experienced a crisis that required immediate intervention to protect the child and those around him. Measures were applied that, quite frankly, were uncomfortable, disheartening and even unacceptable to witness.
The child’s aggressive and erratic behavior prompted an officer with the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department (MDSPD) to initiate a Baker Act, a procedure provided for in Florida law where an individual can be involuntarily transported to a medical facility for psychological evaluation after posing a threat to himself or others. While the student was restrained as a matter of standard procedure to protect him and others during transport, we must question if the best interest of the child was served or if there was a better way of addressing it.
Many times, a disruption caused by a student is because of deep-rooted psychological challenges, not a desire to act out or commit some sort of infraction. While the procedures administered by the MDSPD were aligned with existing protocols, seeing this unfortunate event involving a young child was heartbreaking and concerning to both the School Board and administration.
As important as it is to respect the rights of students and teachers and guarantee their well-being, it is also critical that we carefully and sensitively manage situations where providing school-based services, rather than a Baker Act, is the best course of action for students experiencing an emotional or behavioral crisis. However, on rare occasions, children exhibit crises that may necessitate more comprehensive professional evaluation services to ensure their safety and that of others. This response should only be used after all preventive support systems have failed to modify the negative or harmful behavior, as well as when other avenues of socio-emotional intervention have been unsuccessful.
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Over the past decade, the national suicide rate of children aged 10-14 has doubled, and the rate of youth suicide has also increased. There has been a 37 percent increase in the number of youth reporting major depression, according to a study in the Journal of Pediatrics. As a result, the hospitalization of youth due to mental/behavioral health crises has doubled during the recent 10-year period. When hospitalization is essential for the safety and treatment of a child, the goal is to provide the child a pathway to wellness. The initiation of the Baker Act, in appropriate cases, may be a necessary pathway, albeit of last resort, toward wellness.
We have the ability, the heart and the willingness to provide a more sensitive, humane and logical alternative to administering Baker Acts on children. In fact, M-DCPS has been on a path to reducing the use of the Baker Act in schools. During the 2012-2013 school year, more than 600 Baker Acts of students under the age of 18 were recorded. Since that time, the trend has been on a downward trajectory. The 2016-2017 school year ended with 247 recorded Baker Acts; so far this year, there have been 133. Providing appropriate mental health services and behavioral counseling to reduce the number of children requiring Baker Act has been, and will remain, the focus of this work.
M-DCPS and its police department will improve current procedures related to Baker Acts involving students. Methods will include the following:
▪ Ensuring that school administrators exhaust all means at their disposal prior to requesting law enforcement intervention;
▪ Allowing for additional individuals authorized by students’ parents/guardians to be contacted to assist in the event of a student crisis;
▪ Leveraging private medical transport services to transport students in crisis to the nearest mental health receiving facility, as needed;
▪ Requiring the consultation and approval of a high-ranking command officer in cases involving the potential use of the Baker Act with a young student;
▪ Enhancing crisis intervention training for all MDSPD officers;
▪ Allowing a school staff member to accompany a nonviolent student being transported during an involuntary Baker Act procedure.
The school system’s intent is to provide a more humane response while preserving the police department’s authority to use its professional judgment. In other words, to eliminate the handcuffing of young children without handcuffing police’s ability to protect them.
As we put our heads and hearts together to serve children in crisis, we must move forward with compassion but continue to focus on safety and security in schools.
Alberto Carvalho is the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.