Last month, video of a first-grader leaving Miami’s Coral Way K-8 Center in handcuffs sparked national controversy and a debate over how schools should handle children with behavior issues.
The 7-year-old boy was being transported by a schools police officer for an involuntary psychiatric exam after he hit and kicked a teacher during a lunchtime temper tantrum.
The Miami-Dade school district announced a new policy on Saturday aimed at reducing the use of the Baker Act on young children. The district has faced criticism in recent weeks that school employees are overusing the Florida law, which instructs police to take people who appear to be mentally ill and pose a danger to themselves or others for an involuntary psychiatric exam.
Beginning next week, school administrators will be required to exhaust all other options in handling a child with behavior issues before requesting police intervention. When schools police are called to respond, they will need to get the approval of a lieutenant or higher-ranking officer before transporting a child under the Baker Act.
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The new policy, laid out in a memo that Superintendent Alberto Carvalho sent to the School Board, also addresses the use of handcuffs. Children sent for an involuntary psychiatric exam can now be taken to a hospital using a private medical transport service, which does not require the use of handcuffs, or in the back of a schools police car without handcuffs and accompanied by a school staff person. The policy still allows for the use of handcuffs if a child is aggressively resisting an officer.
“It is important to note that M-DCPS is already on a path to reducing the number of Baker Acts in schools,” Carvalho said in the memo. Last school year, there were 247 Baker Acts initiated at Miami-Dade public schools, down from more than 600 during the 2012-2013 school year, according to the memo. “Staff will continue to accelerate its efforts at providing students with the necessary counseling and support services to reduce Baker Acts,” Carvalho said.
Following the incident at Coral Way K-8 Center, the superintendent directed the schools police to review the process for assessing students and using the Baker Act.
While the number of Baker Acts initiated at Miami-Dade public schools appears to be on the decline, the families of special needs children, and the lawyers and activists who support them, still say the law is being overused. State data show that the Baker Act is used on students in Miami-Dade’s public, private and charter schools at a rate of more than three times every school day. Some South Florida families say their children have been Baker Acted, threatened with the Baker Act or suspended for behavior that stems from a developmental disability, such as autism.
Statewide, the number of children subjected to involuntary psychiatric exams rose nearly 50 percent between Fiscal Year 2010-11 and Fiscal Year 2015-16, according to a state task force convened last year to study the issue. Between July 2015 and July 2016 alone, more than 32,000 involuntary psychiatric exams were conducted on Florida children, according to data from the Baker Act Reporting Center at the University of South Florida.