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Number of Miami-Dade students ‘Baker Acted’ on the rise

The number of Miami-Dade students taken by school police from campus for an involuntary psychiatric exam has almost exactly doubled in the past five years, according to the district’s records.

At least 646 times this year — that’s an average of more than thee times every school day — Miami-Dade school police have handcuffed a student, put him or her in the back of a patrol car and driven to a mental health facility under the rules in Florida’s mental health law, the Baker Act.

The rise has come at a time when school crime statistics and juvenile arrests are down markedly.

Critics, including some inside the district, say the schools may be overusing the Baker Act, which allows individuals to be held for evaluation up to 72 hours. Some critics say it might be a deliberate effort to tamp down campus crime statistics.

District administrators say the numbers are reflection of schoolteachers, counselors and police becoming more alert and sensitive to the emotional problems of students at a time when kids face more pressure than ever.

“Over the past two years, we have trained all counseling professionals, school administrators and school police officers on the early warning signs of emotional at-risk behaviors,” said John Schuster, the district’s communications chief, in a statement. “More importantly, we have imbued all of our employees with a sacred responsibility to seek immediate assistance for any student exhibiting signs of suicide or homicidal ideation, plan or threat.”

District officials also point out that the use of the Baker Act in society at large has risen significantly.

Nonetheless, Miami-Dade school officials are investigating concerns about the Baker Act’s possible overuse. Schools Police Chief Charles Hurley has been temporarily reassigned to desk duty pending the outcome of the probe, which involves separate allegations of sexual harassment.

At least one longtime and well-respected school psychologist has voiced reservations about the practice of Baker Acting children.

Frank Zenere wrote an internal complaint this month to a high-ranking school official saying his boss — Suzy Milano-Berrios, who runs the department of mental health and crisis management services and has been the subject of a slew of recent complaints from her own employees — “coerced us to persuade school officials and school police to Baker Act students, even at times when it was not warranted.”

Similar concern has reached Habsi Kaba, who coordinates Miami-Dade County’s Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, program. She trains officers in mental health issues and the Baker Act and serves as their liaison.

“It has been brought to my attention that there has been some pressure to initiate involuntary exams,” Kaba said.

In 2006, Miami-Dade schools police started participating in the 40-hour long CIT training, but stopped last summer, Kaba said. In the training she teaches officers the legal criteria — such as concerns that a student is likely to hurt himself or others — to initiate an involuntary exam under the Baker Act. “That’s what the officer has to follow,” she said. “If someone is pressuring them to initiate an involuntary psychiatric exam more frequently, then it’s not in their control anymore.”

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.”

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.