By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida had 5,077 incidents of students being involuntarily committed under a mental-health law known as the Baker Act during the past school year, data presented Wednesday to a school-safety commission showed.
The Baker Act is a roughly 50-year-old state law that allows courts, law enforcement officers and certain medical workers to order people who could be a harm to themselves or others to be taken to facilities for up to 72 hours.
People taken to facilities involuntarily under the law must receive initial examinations by physicians or clinical psychologists, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families. They also can’t be released within the 72-hour period without documented approval from physicians or psychologists.
School districts are required to report Baker Act data under a law approved last year by the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis. Districts report numbers of students who are taken to facilities because of incidents initiated on campuses, school transportation or school-sponsored activities.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which was created after the 2018 Parkland high-school massacre, reviewed the Baker Act data Wednesday along with discussing other school-safety issues. The report marked the first schools-specific look at the number of Baker Act incidents statewide.
The data indicated 4,844 individual students were taken from campuses for involuntary psychiatric examinations under the Baker Act during the past school year.
“That means that there were 233 duplicates,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is chairman of the commission. “But because the data is without personally identifiable information, we don’t know if one student was Baker acted 10 times or 233 students were Baker acted twice. But regardless, what it shows is the majority of the (campus) Baker acts are one-time events.”
The data also did not take into account school-age children who were subject to the Baker Act outside of school environments.
The University of South Florida College of Behavioral and Community Sciences has a Baker Act Reporting Center, which collects data on Baker Act incidents for the Department of Children and Families.
The center’s most-recent data said that during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, children ages 18 or younger accounted for 17.74 percent of Florida’s 128,193 people who were subject to the Baker Act involuntarily.
In Leon County, 573 children ages 18 or younger were subject to the Baker Act involuntarily.
Because the reporting requirement is new for school districts, school-safety officials have not been able to analyze trends of involuntary examinations that start in schools.
“It’s probably going to take a couple years of data, and then looking at it, to provide any context,” Gualtieri said.
But Florida lawmakers in recent years have considered various pieces of legislation dealing with use of the Baker Act, with some characterizing it as being increasingly overused in schools and on younger children.
State Department of Education Senior Chancellor Jacob Oliva pointed to a separate new requirement that schools designate mental-health coordinators. That requirement, included in legislation this year, could help officials better understand the data going forward.
“When we’re having our convenings and meeting with folks regionally … is there a lack of resources, and we’re just Baker acting kids because we don’t have anybody else to call? Where do we start taking this data, then formulating some strategic plans around that? Those conversations are starting to happen at a much deeper level,” Oliva said.
Meanwhile, commission member Douglas Dodd called for more granular data reporting about the grade levels of students who are being taken for mental-health examinations.
“As a school-board member what concerns me greatly is when I see these younger children, these elementary school children, being Baker acted. And I would wonder if there is a way that we could identify elementary, middle, high school, what school it is. Because we have seen an increased number of younger students that are being Baker acted,” said Dodd, who is a Citrus County School Board member and a former school-resource officer.