The Baker Act started with the best of intentions: to bring more rights to the mentally ill. But in the almost 50 years since it became law, it routinely has been misused by school officials and law enforcement officers who involuntarily commit children at the first mention of the word “suicide,” often without notifying their parents or examining the child in context. The Baker Act needs more protections and oversight to require that schools can commit a child only after gathering the best possible information, not just to “err on the side of caution.”
The Baker Act initially began as a way to protect mentally ill patients who could be placed in a state hospital without their consent. Yet, the state law has become a primary tool in taking away rights from the mentally ill, particularly when its involuntary inpatient placement policy is invoked in schools. That statute allows individuals to be placed in a treatment facility for up to 72 hours if they have refused voluntary treatment or cannot determine whether treatment is necessary and are likely to hurt themselves or others if left alone.
On its face, the law makes sense. If a student talks about killing himself, it’s understandable that a school resource officer takes that child seriously. But the decision the officer has to make — do I commit this child under the Baker Act — is one most officers are unprepared to make. In the words of a USF stigma specialist: "Suicide risk assessments are tricky things for mental health professionals.” In many cases, officers choose the path of caution rather than examining the child’s case as a whole. Even when students, like 12-year-old A.J. Plonsky in Cocoa, have an individualized education plan and see regular therapists and pediatricians for their disabilities, officers choose to involuntarily commit instead.
Nothing points to this more than the rising number of involuntary commitments from local schools over the past five years. And Florida does not even keep track of students who were involuntarily sent to treatment under the Baker Act. A Tampa Bay Times database shows that commitments from Baker Acts for local students have risen by 35 percent in the last five years. Tampa Bay students are being committed in larger numbers than the state average. In 2017, lawmakers recommended forming mobile crisis response teams to more often involve mental health counselors in Baker Act discussions. Since then, the number has grown from 12 teams in 10 counties to 41 teams across the state. But it’s not enough when Florida has, on average, one psychologist for every 2,000 students, much fewer than the recommended ratio.
What the Baker Act does wrong from the start is put the power to involuntarily commit students in the hands of people who don’t even have the right tools to evaluate the question. But there are solutions, some of which are proposed in bipartisan legislation that would require parental notification at the start of a Baker Act process, require more training for school officers on mental health issues and require them to contact a mobile response team to get more information on the child’s medical history. It would also, perhaps most importantly, require schools to keep track of how many students have been committed through the Baker Act. All of these are worthy responses to an unexpected problem that the Baker Act has created through its overuse in schools.
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