Florida schools detain children too often. Just look at the latest headlines | Editorial
Is arresting 6-year-olds or involuntarily committing them really the best course of action?
Body camera footage shows the arrest of Kai Rolle at Lucious and Emma Nixon Academy.
Body camera footage shows the arrest of Kai Rolle at Lucious and Emma Nixon Academy. [ Cortesía ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published March 6, 2020|Updated March 6, 2020

In the last month, 6-year-old girls at schools in Orlando and Jacksonville were held by police for bad behavior — and those are the cases the public knows about. The high-profile incidents reinforce the need for police departments to adopt clearer policies for arresting kids and for more oversight regarding use of the Baker Act to involuntarily commit students to a treatment facility after incidents at school.

It didn’t take long for more evidence of the over-use of the Baker Act in schools to come to light after the Tampa Bay Times published an investigation on the topic in December. A 6-year-old girl was involuntarily committed under the Baker Act from a special needs class at a Duval County elementary school in early February. A Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office report indicated she was “destroying school property, attacking staff, out of control and running out of school,” but the police officer didn’t find that when she picked her up. “I don’t see her acting like they said,” the officer said, recorded on body camera footage. “She’s been actually very pleasant.”

A separate case in February that was not tied to the Baker Act involved a 6-year-old girl from Orlando taken from her school in zip ties. The girl had a tantrum that day where she “kicked and punched three school employees,” according to the arrest report. When the officer went to arrest her on a charge of misdemeanor battery, he noted she was the youngest person he had ever arrested.

Related: Why the Baker Act isn't working in schools | Editorial

Students as young as six should not be arrested or involuntarily committed as a first resort when there are problems at school. In the past seven years, children have been Baker Acted in Tampa Bay public schools more than 7,500 times. That number has risen by 35 percent in the last five years. And that rate is higher than the state average. Tampa Bay Times journalists had to build a database, because the state does not record how many times a school resorts to the Baker Act.

This week, the Florida House passed legislation that would require police departments to have a policy for the arrest of children under the age of 10, inspired by the events in Orlando. “We do not believe in criminalizing childhood tantrums,” said House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, to the 6-year-old child who was in the gallery that day. Another bipartisan bill would address more of the concerns outlined in the Tampa Bay Times stories, including tracking the number of Baker Acts, requiring more parental involvement at the outset of a Baker Act process, instituting more training for school officers on mental health and requiring them to get in touch with a mobile response team to obtain more information on children’s medical history before making the decision to Baker Act. Both of these policies would be a great addition to the landscape of policies that involve when and how to detain a child at school.

The Baker Act, initially intended to protect the mentally ill, started with the best of intentions. But the rising number of involuntary commitments of students in public schools indicates the law has been overused by people without the right tools or protocols to evaluate the situation. With a week left in the regular session, the Legislature should approve these bills that would provide more clarity about arresting kids at schools or involuntarily committing them.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.