Outside his classroom, A.J. Plonsky dropped his backpack on the pavement and curled himself into a ball.
It was the 12-year-old’s first day at a new school. A kid from math had ignored him in the noisy cafeteria at lunch, so he sat alone and cried. By the time he got to science class, where he sat in the wrong seat, A.J. used his fingernails to dig a long, bloody scratch in his arm.
It was also Officer James Salley’s first day at Cocoa High School, a campus of 1,600 students, grades 7 through 12, on the east coast of Florida.
Now, Salley crouched his 6-foot-1 frame next to A.J., his body camera recording the interaction. He asked A.J. to trust him.
A.J. had wanted so badly to reinvent himself in seventh grade, to fit in with peers and not melt down when he was overwhelmed. He was embarrassed and frustrated. As Salley encouraged him to go to the nurse to get his arm treated, A.J. struggled with his words -- as children with autism often do.
“No, she might kill me,” A.J. said, shaking his head.
“No one’s going to kill you,” Salley said.
“Then I want to kill myself when I get home so no one else can,” A.J. said tearfully, pretending to stab at his leg. He didn’t mean it, and he would calm down and say so.
But Salley sighed. “That’s not good,” he said, because he knew A.J.’s day was about to get worse. Salley asked the guidance counselor to call A.J.’s parents. He felt he would have no choice than to transport A.J. to a mental health facility in the back of a police car.
Florida’s Baker Act directs police officers and some mental health professionals to hospitalize the mentally ill, but it was never intended to be used on children with autism or children who act out in class. The 48-year-old law even says those with developmental disabilities should not be committed unless they’re also mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others.
But more and more kids who do not meet the criteria are being taken from schools to crisis centers for up to 72 hours and more.
Across Florida, the number of children involuntarily transported each year to a mental health center has doubled in the last 15 years to about 36,000, or 100 a day, according to the Baker Act Reporting Center at the University of South Florida. More than 4,000 were under the age of 10.
There’s more awareness about reporting concerning behavior and more children making troubling statements on social media. And since the mass shooting at a Parkland high school in 2018, every public school in Florida has an officer or armed guard with a hard set of rules for dealing with kids in crisis.
Interviews with dozens of parents around the state reveal a system that sweeps up too many kids.
“She was 8,” said Lindsey Rezin, whose daughter, Marisol, has autism and was involuntarily committed for three days from an elementary school in Manatee County after she said - once - that she felt like stabbing herself. The officer asked if she knew where the knives were kept at home, and that was enough.
“It was unbelievably shocking. It rocked our world.”
The Tampa Bay Times found officers hospitalized children who had a meltdown, refused an order or drew a troubling picture. Some kids vaguely threatened to hurt themselves. Other children exhibited behavior that was typical for their development disabilities and identified in their federal education plans.
Often, the Baker Act of a child happens without parents’ knowledge or consent, and once the process is underway, they have no rights under the law to challenge a decision. These interactions with police can be particularly scary for parents of special needs children who struggle with tantrums and communication.
“In that moment, that decision may seem like a good one in order to err on the side of caution or avoid issues of liability,” said Kristin Kosyluk, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida’s Department of Mental Health Law & Policy who studies the impact of mental stigma. “But in the long term, the impact is a traumatized child, a traumatized family and an experience that can never be undone.”
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Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said police are “hands down, unequivocally the least qualified people to deal with this. The mental health training that law enforcement officers receive in the academy is minimal … so you end up with a lot of situations that are resolved by over-Baker Acting.”
Sam Boyd, a senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Miami, said this rarely happens in other states. “Schools don’t send people to mental institutions.”
Florida doesn’t require a standardized approach. In Hernando County, school resource officers initiate the Baker Act and typically don’t notify parents until the child is on the way to a facility. In Miami, where a video of a handcuffed 7-year-old went viral in 2018, the policy is to call parents first. In Alachua County, parents are notified as soon as a counselor assesses the child, but school officers decide whether to transport to a crisis center. The different approaches is one reason there is no accurate statewide data on the use of the Baker Act in schools, Boyd said.
Some parents have convinced those crisis centers that their children don’t belong. Others have struggled to get their kids out. A number of children have been released after a night by psychiatrists who recognize they are not mentally ill.
The law provides little oversight, with judges weighing in only if a facility wants to keep a child committed involuntarily longer than three days.
Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Republican from Stuart, and Rep. Jennifer Webb, a Democrat from Gulfport, are sponsoring companion bills that would require parental notification upon the initiation of a Baker Act. It would attempt to curtail inappropriate Baker Acts by requiring more training of school officers. They also would be compelled to contact a mobile response team and find out if the child has another medical condition, such as autism. The bills would mandate that a count be kept of the number of children taken involuntarily from schools.
Parents and advocates say the law needs to change.
“I’m seeing officers and administrators who use the Baker Act as a tool to get kids out of school,” said Shahar Pasch, an attorney from West Palm Beach who has represented dozens of families. “It’s across the board, across the state, the whole Baker Act system is being abused.”
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A.J.’s mom, Staci Plonsky, edged her Honda Accord forward at another school, 23 minutes away, waiting for her eldest child, when she got the call from school. It was August 2018.
Plonsky, a stay-at-home mom and birth doula, had been worried about him all day. At 12, A.J. was 5-foot-6, but he had the emotional maturity of an 8-year-old. He had an older sister, Grace, 15, and a younger sister, Juliette, 8, who were often overshadowed by their brother’s ever-changing moods. Grace’s earliest memory is of him kicking and screaming.
In kindergarten, he threw over chairs and desks.
Now, it was difficult to get him to shower or cut his hair. As his hormones surged, he grew stormy without warning and had broken the door off his bedroom. He could read only at a third-grade level, but he solved algebra problems for fun. He loved to draw and was on page 150 of a story he was telling with two characters, Bunk and Gorb, who don’t get along well.
Plonsky knew middle school was going to be a challenge. In the months before, they had walked to his classes three times. They secured a computer table for him in the lunchroom and preferential seating in class. They got him involved in special needs soccer and rock climbing to help him socialize.
But now the guidance counselor was on the phone, saying Plonsky needed to come and A.J. “had made very good friends with the school resource officer.” There was no hint, Plonsky said, of what was about to happen.
Stuck in her daughter’s car line, she called her husband, Terry Plonsky, a rocket scientist at NASA in Cape Canaveral, and dispatched him to A.J.’s school. Then she dropped her daughters at home and headed there, too.
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A.J. had thrown a tantrum in the school courtyard, stomping his feet. He pitched a piece of paper at an administrator whom he said had been mean to him. Now he sat outside the nurse’s office and whimpered.
“I don’t want to be arrested,” he cried to Salley and the guidance counselor, tears flowing. “I don’t want to go to jail. I don’t want to go to the asylum.”
Salley, a father of three, patted A.J.’s shoulder. Then the officer left the room and called over his police radio to have someone bring him “Form 52,” the document to initiate an involuntary commitment.
Back in the hall, after A.J.’s arm had been bandaged, Salley told him: “You’re not in trouble. You’re just having a hard time dealing with a new situation. That’s all it is.”
“I don’t like new things,” A.J. said, wiping his eyes on his sleeve.
“But that’s what we’re here for, that’s what friends are for, to help each other through hard times,” the officer said.
“Yea,” A.J. said, calming down.
He turned his red face, wet with tears, to the officer and asked if Salley could come to school with him every day. Salley said he’d try.
Salley told the boy that his father was on his way, and they would decide what to do together.
Salley and another Cocoa police officer led Terry Plonsky into a conference room with a long table and TIGER PRIDE written on the wall in orange and blue. A.J. was sitting in the hallway, showing the guidance counselor his artwork.
Salley explained how A.J. had struggled at lunch and had later scratched himself. “Yea, it’s very common for kids with autism to self-mutilate,” Plonsky said.
But then A.J. had made the comment about killing himself, Salley explained. The officer felt obligated to take A.J. for an evaluation.
Plonsky absorbed this information calmly. Children with autism often struggle to express their needs and understand non-verbal communication, emotions and conversations. They fall apart when their routines or interests are disrupted.
A.J. saw three people for his disabilities, including a behavioral pediatrician and a therapist, Plonsky said. Was this facility going to be able to do anything they couldn’t do?
“He’s been threatening to kill himself since he was in kindergarten,” Plonsky said. “Therapists say it’s an attention-getter.”
Salley said he had no choice.
“The reason is because of the liability,” Salley explained. “Everything we do now is recorded. So he made the statement he’s going to do it now, and god forbid he does do it, it would come back on me and the school board and the city of Cocoa. And it’s just the world we live in right now. I wish I had more discretion on that, because when common sense prevails, better things can happen.”
Plonsky said he thought A.J. was protected by his individualized education plan, a federal document that oversees every child with developmental disabilities. He and his wife had reviewed it with school officials months before, and A.J.’s behaviors were clearly documented.
Salley said he would check.
Fifty years ago, kids like A.J. did not typically attend school. Many children who were blind or deaf, learning or intellectually disabled or emotionally disturbed stayed home or attended institutions. It wasn’t until 1975 that President Gerald Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which ultimately compensated schools that provided “a free and appropriate education” to children with disabilities.
Schools are required to abide by individualized education plans, or IEPs, which outline each disabled child’s special needs, says Mitchell Yell, a professor of special education at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
“When state and federal law conflict, federal law would prevail,” Yell said.
If the plan is not followed, parents or guardians can file a complaint or request a hearing. “It’s very highly litigated,” Yell said.
He has participated in a number of IEP cases. The most recent involved a Colorado boy with autism who had behavioral and academic problems. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2017 the school district must pay $1.3 million, including the child’s $70,000 per year tuition at a private school.
Yell and other experts expressed concern that school officials would not even look at a child’s education plan while deciding whether to send him to a crisis center.
Under federal law, a principal must consider an IEP, says Mark Kamleiter, an attorney and behavior specialist who has represented families battling school districts.
“Covering his backside is not reasonable grounds for applying the Baker Act,” he said.
Katie Kelly, an attorney at Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida in Daytona Beach, said her office filed a complaint on behalf of 11 children with the U.S. Department of Justice two years ago against Volusia County schools, arguing a lack of appropriate support for students with disabilities, including autism, was leading to Baker Acts and arrests. It’s still under investigation, she says.
“What we want is for districts to stop using the Baker Act as part of their discipline policy or in a punitive way,” she said. “And the reason we know they are doing that is because kids go to the hospital and then they are released almost immediately.”
A number of parents recounted how the experience traumatized their children. Several said the Baker Act had caused their children to fear police.
One Pinellas County mom said her son, who was placed under the Baker Act for the first time at age 6, can’t sleep with sheets of certain textures. They remind him of the ones in the hospital.
Another said her 13-year-old son had never gotten in trouble at school before a teacher fished a crumpled drawing out of the garbage. He and another boy had drawn two naked, Rambo-like guys with penises and guns and a square with the name of the school. He was driven to a crisis center.
“I understand that with everything that’s happened and all the school shootings, but this is way too much,” said Ann Corzo, a commercial loan assistant. “My son is going to therapy because of everything that happened to him, and now my son is under a microscope in school.”
It may be that some of those kids might not have gotten care otherwise, said Kosyluk, the assistant professor who studies the impact of mental health stigma. But, she said, there are likely children who didn’t need involuntary hospitalization and will now avoid “the behavioral health care system at all costs, and that prospect is scariest to me.”
“Having spoken with many people who’ve undergone involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations,” Kosyluk said, “it sticks with you for life.”
Salley left his meeting with Terry Plonsky and headed to the office of Principal Rachad Wilson.
On his shelf was a placard that said: “IT IS WHAT IT IS”
“Do you know of anything different with Baker Acting if the student has an IEP?” Salley asked, with his body camera still recording.
A.J.’s father had said the commitment was unnecessary.
But the principal didn’t hesitate.
“We can’t take that chance,” he told Salley.
A.J. was sitting in the lobby of the front office with his dad and guidance counselor when Salley returned and let him know he was taking him to a place, Circles of Care, where he could get help.
A.J. hung his head, wrapped his arms around his knees and bawled.
“You’ll get through it,” Salley said. “It’s tough, but sometimes kids need help. You’re a good kid.”
Together, the officer and A.J. walked out the front of the school and past a boy stretched out on a bench, across the open parking lot to the car with POLICE on the side.
Staci Plonsky pulled up in time to see her son being placed in the back seat. She didn’t feel like she could alter what was about to happen, so she told A.J. she would sort it out at the other end.
She sobbed as she trailed the police car to Melbourne, the nearest children’s crisis unit. It was a 45-minute drive.
Once they arrived, she tried to talk the crisis center out of taking A.J., telling them he had autism.
She was told they had to wait for the doctor. She begged to stay with A.J. but the intake counselor wanted her insurance information.
Plonsky met with her son briefly, and he asked to go home.
She told him she had no say here. He would have to spend the night.
“It’ll be like summer camp,” she said, trying to sound hopeful. She handed him a picture of their family from her wallet.
She would later describe this as the worst moment of her life. She couldn’t protect her son, and he knew it. She saw the fear in his eyes. She tried not to let him see hers.
Stay calm, she said.
The Monday after A.J. got home, Staci Plonsky set her purse on the long table in the conference room with TIGER PRIDE on the wall and faced Officer Salley.
Her curly blond hair was still wet, and she wore a plain, blue T-shirt and no jewelry or makeup. She was still stunned from the previous few days.
A.J. had been released after 19 hours -- soon after he met with a nurse practitioner.
When his parents picked him up, he talked about how he’d met other kids and watched Chronicles of Narnia. Beyond that, he hadn’t wanted to talk about it.
“My concern is here I put my child on the bus and he didn’t come home,” she said to Salley. “You sent an autistic child to be Baker Acted even though there are statutes that exempt children with developmental delays … his behavior plan was not followed. His IEP was not followed.”
Salley said he’d contacted his supervisor and spoken with both the principal and assistant principal. All had agreed with the decision.
Why hadn’t someone called her at lunch when A.J. had his first outburst? Plonsky asked, her questions coming rapid-fire.
“Where’s the guidance counselor in all this?” she asked, gesturing to the empty table.
She explained A.J.’s language skills. He didn’t understand the consequences of his words, she said.
“I have a child on the spectrum, too,” Salley said. “I am sympathetic to your situation.”
He said his daughter has Asperger’s.
“If your daughter made comments common to her, not having pragmatic speaking skills, and some officer sent your daughter away to spend the night somewhere without your family and you’re not allowed to speak with your child…” her voice broke, “and you have to trust the powers that be that they’re not going to traumatize her further?”
“It’s rough,” Salley said, “it is rough.”
“How would your wife feel?” Plonsky persisted. “You tell your wife what you did, and I would love to hear how she feels knowing someone ripped her child from her. She pulls up to the school to see her child being put into a police car.”
Plonsky knew the officer hadn’t intentionally hurt A.J., that he had been trying to help, but she was angry. She felt he needed to know the consequences. He couldn’t take this back.
“You made a mistake,” she said. “We hate that our son has autism but he does, and so we put everything in place ... and I want to know where the hell the guidance counselor was throughout all this?” she said, again gesturing to the empty table.
Salley explained patiently that the counselor had been there the whole time, talking to A.J.
“Well, I cannot send my son back here at this point,” Plonsky said. “I don’t trust you, which is pathetic.”
Paul Grant, the counselor, arrived.
“I thought he did fairly well except for lunch time,” Grant said.
“Except for him leaving in the back of a police car,” Plonsky replied.
“I thought about it all weekend,” Grant said quietly. “I apologize for that … I’d really like him to come back.”
“So you can take him again?” she said. “You can’t even imagine.”
“Yes ma’am,” Grant said, casting his eyes down.
This past summer, during an interview at the Cocoa Police Department, Salley said he could not talk specifically about A.J. But he did speak about his role as a school resource officer.
“I learned a lot about dealing with autism in the last year, “ said the 43-year-old, who has a square jaw, a buzz cut and a tattoo on his arm that says in Chinese: “Bigger, stronger protects smaller, weaker.”
He’d served as a Marine Corps rifleman on a terrorism rapid response team, protected NATO bases in Europe and supervised a sheriff’s department domestic violence unit in Maryland before applying to become a school resource officer. He did that after Parkland in 2018. He received 40 hours of crisis intervention training.
More than a year after what happened with A.J., Salley says he is more likely now to consult mental health counselors at the school before initiating a Baker Act. He’s learned to be more engaged with parents. He inquires about individualized education plans sometimes as much as three times a week and works closely with a counselor whose office is right next door.
But Salley still contends the Baker Act takes away his discretion.
A student’s IEP will “never, ever trump state law,” Salley said.
Rachad Wilson, the principal at Cocoa High, and Paul Grant, the guidance counselor, declined to comment.
Christine Moore, Brevard’s assistant superintendent of student services, said the district this past year launched a team of two psychologists who travel the 73-mile-long county and evaluate suicide risks. The purpose is to avoid children being inappropriately committed.
“I will say that each of these cases, we review,” she said, “and we try to learn from them, and there are cases that cause us great concern.”
Salley understands that autistic children are not subject to the Baker Act based on that disability, but he can initiate an involuntary commitment if someone is having a mental health crisis.
That said, he acknowledged that a commitment can be traumatizing and he was not mad at Staci Plonsky “one bit” for her reaction. “I totally get it,” he said. “Educating the public on why we do what we do is paramount to resolving a lot of issues.”
He said schools need more mental health counselors and officers need significantly more mental health training.
A.J. and his family live in a modest house at the end of a country road with two dogs, two cats, two horses and a chicken house in a pasture out back. One day last summer, a few weeks before he was to start eighth grade, A.J., now 13, sat at the dining room table drawing pictures of the day he was involuntarily committed. He’d turned himself into a superhero called Mega A.J., who wore a cape with a big A. “You have to draw the muscle carefully, so it doesn’t look like flab,” he explained.
In one picture, he hung from a flagpole and the guidance counselor was blowing away in the wind. In the lunchroom, everyone stared at him as he cried.
“I'm usually really good at making friends,” he said, “but they had the wrong friends. It was hard to find someone lonely and nice like me. Everyone else was just tough and cool.”
He seemed happy enough, but his mother said the whole family was scarred.
In counseling, A.J. talked about the shame he felt over what had happened. School had always been a challenge and now he hated it.
A.J. was out of school for four weeks. His family toured several private schools, consulted attorneys, retrieved records. They learned that it’s difficult to win cases like this against police.
Ultimately, the family consulted Disability Rights Florida, which advocated on A.J.’s behalf with a new public school, McNair Middle.
“Our goal was to move forward,” said Staci Plonsky, 39.
So this past August, A.J. headed off to his first day of school. He hung out with the guidance counselor for a day, then added a class. By the end of the first week, he had a full schedule.
One day, when the school number flashed on Plonsky’s phone, she panicked. But it was just a teacher telling her how impressed she was with A.J.
Another time, A.J. started scratching his arms. His teacher took him to the nurse, he calmed down, got cleaned up and returned to class.
Once, he told a friend he wanted to kill himself. A counselor conducted a suicide assessment, then released him to his parents.
Staci Plonsky said even she has had to regain A.J.’s trust.
Terry Plonsky, 45, talks a lot with his son about using appropriate words, keeping his hands to himself. “He comes home and he tells us how good he was trying to be today,” he said. “I can see him really trying.”
His parents are still scared.
“It’s always how can we help A.J. be as calm as possible,” Staci Plonsky said.
“How to prove we’re really good parents and able to take care of him. I feel that weight every day. Don’t you?” she said, turning to her husband.
The school resource officer at A.J.’s new school has a copy of his individualized education plan. Staci Plonsky spent an hour with him, going over A.J.’s behaviors. Then she reached out to four separate people at the school. She made each promise to call her before anything happens to A.J.
Senior news researcher Caryn Baird and data reporter Connie Humburg contributed to this story.
About the story
Times reporters Leonora LaPeter Anton and John Pendygraft spent months criss-crossing the state, meeting with parents, lawyers, school officials, lawmakers, mental health professionals and police. They corroborated stories with Agency for Health Care Administration hospital inspection reports, police records, data from the Baker Act Reporting Center and Freedom of Information requests. Much of A.J. Plonsky’s story was recreated from body camera video that officer James Salley wore the day he decided to initiate the Baker Act. Other moments were recreated by A.J.’s family.
The Tampa Bay Times has been exploring the unintended consequences of Florida’s mental health law.
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Reporters Leonora LaPeter Anton and John Pendygraft spent months on this series, meeting with parents, lawyers, school officials, mental health professionals and police around the state. In-depth journalism takes time.