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Bills propose sweeping changes to use of Baker Act in Florida schools

Lawmakers Jennifer Webb and Gayle Harrell craft legislation addressing many of the flaws uncovered in a Times investigation.

Jennifer Webb was campaigning for a Gulfport-based seat in the Florida House when she started hearing complaints about how the state’s mental health law was was being used in Pinellas County schools.

No one was tracking how often involuntary mental health examinations originated at schools under Florida’s Baker Act. But the state did publish more general data showing how often the law was being used to take children to mental health facilities.

Webb learned that Florida kids were being involuntarily committed more often, and that it was happening to Pinellas kids at rates higher than the state average. She also found out that the suicide rate among Florida juveniles had increased.

She realized: Something wasn’t working.

The Gulfport Democrat kept asking questions and gathering information after her election to the House in 2018, she said. And last year, everything she learned “kind of congealed” when she sat down with state Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart.

The two lawmakers came from different parties and represented constituencies on opposite coasts, but they had overlapping concerns about how the mental health law was used on students. Together, they got to work on bills that attack the problems they saw — and that they hope will be passed during the legislative session, which begins Tuesday.

State Rep. Jennifer Webb, D-Gulfport, filed a bill on Jan. 3 that would reform the way Florida's Baker Act is used in schools. [Courtesy of Jennifer Webb]

“It’s all about making sure that we’re really saving Baker Acts for kids who really are an immediate threat for themselves or others," Webb said.

Harrell filed her bill late last year, and Webb filed hers on Jan. 3. They propose sweeping change in how the Baker Act would work in schools, and they seek to address many of the same problems uncovered by a Tampa Bay Times investigation published last month.

Both bills were in the works before the investigation published, though Webb said that being interviewed by Times reporters on the subject helped shape her approach to the bill.

Related: Florida's flawed Baker Act rips thousands of kids from school

The legislation would require authorities to contact parents earlier when their children are in crisis. It would direct school districts to track and report data about when the Baker Act is used in their schools. And it would require that, for districts to be eligible for state mental health funding, officials consult with mobile teams of mental health professionals before they commit a child involuntarily.

The bills also would require school resource officers to go through crisis intervention training with a focus on children. And Webb’s House bill would require law enforcement officers to use “the least restrictive mode of restraint” possible when transporting students to mental health facilities. Children are typically handcuffed and placed in police cars during those travels.

Florida law already requires officials to notify parents or guardians if a student is removed from school under the Baker Act. But as the Times investigation found, parents often don’t find out their children have been taken until they’re already at or on their way to a mental health facility.

Harrell relayed a story that put Baker Act problems on her radar: A student in her area was placed under the Baker Act one morning at school, she said, but the father didn’t find out until he arrived to pick up his child at the end of the day.

State Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said problems with the use of the Baker Act in schools came on her radar after parents complained they didn't learn what happened to their kids until hours later. [Florida Senate]

Harrell and Webb said that better data on when the Baker Act is used in schools would benefit students — they contend it would help ensure that the law isn’t being overused and would give the state more information about how well mental health resources are working in schools.

That information does not exist now. The Baker Act Reporting Center at the University of South Florida, which publishes statistics on the law, has found that locations are unreliably reported on the forms that go to the state. The bills would require school districts to report how many times the Baker Act is used at school, on school transportation and at school-sponsored activities. The aggregated data would go to the state annually.

Annette Christy, director of the Baker Act Reporting Center, said the process would be “a useful mechanism" to monitor how the law is used in schools, and that the numbers collected there could be compared with data the center collects.

Related: The Baker Act set out to improve care. Now it’s ensnaring more children.

Among the Times investigation’s other findings was that school-based mental health professionals are often frozen out of Baker Act decisions, sometimes by law enforcement officers who respond to crises and sometimes by school district policies that bar district employees from making those decisions. The bills don’t address those district policies, but they would require districts to have agreements with state-funded mobile crisis response teams.

As of late 2019, Florida had 41 of those teams, which consist of mental health professionals who float across one or multiple counties to help kids and young adults in crisis. Schools and school-based law enforcement officers would have to call one of the teams before using the Baker Act. The teams could respond in person or by phone.

Because of the relatively small number of teams, it could be hard for them to respond to every crisis — the Times found that hundreds of students are taken each year under the Baker Act in every Tampa Bay area school district. But Webb said she hopes the requirement works as its own sort of deescalation: The fact that it’s there may make school officials or officers think harder about whether the Baker Act is the best option in certain cases.

Either way, it slows down cases that don’t present a clear threat. Webb sees this as a necessity, and something that could prompt the state to focus on mental health solutions besides the Baker Act.

The money now used to place kids in mental health facilities could be "moved upstream to be used for more appropriate interventions,” she said. “We start to correct the system as a whole.”

Related: An autistic child melts down. An officer makes a decision. A family suffers the consequences.

Martha Lenderman, the state’s foremost expert on the Baker Act, said she had some reservations about the bills. She said school districts should report data more than once a year, and wanted clarification on when parents would be notified.

Martha Lenderman, the foremost expert on the Baker Act, said she sees what the new bills are trying to accomplish but had reservations about them. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

Lenderman said she believes the lawmakers are “trying their best to do the right thing,” but that the Legislature will have to open its coffers to effect real change.

“If the Legislature would allocate appropriate funding for intervention and treatment for children with mental illness ... then maybe we wouldn’t have nearly so many (Baker Act cases),” she said.

Carly Paro-Tompkins, a licensed mental health counselor and assistant professor at Nova Southeastern University in Clearwater, had a more optimistic response to the bills: “Isn’t it wonderful that the community is responding to the drumbeat of the mental health professionals who have been crying, ‘This is important’?”

It was conversations with local mental health professionals, Webb said, that left her with one of her most striking impressions of the Baker Act. Those experts told her the tool had its place but had become overused in the absence of other options.

It made Web think about her first job out of college, when she worked with teenagers and young adults who were phased out of state custody. Many had experienced involuntary examination or institutionalization, she said. And though she knew extreme actions were sometimes needed to prevent tragedy, some young people were left with the impression that they were “too broken to be fixed.”

“I think we have a responsibility to find good solutions and elegant solutions,” Webb said, “so that we’re not just relying on what we have.”