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After a Florida teacher mistook a third grader’s drawing of a person hugging a rocket for male genitalia, police seized the child for an involuntary psychiatric examination and threw her into the back of a squad car, according to a new federal lawsuit.
A group of parents and advocates filed the complaint against the School Board of Palm Beach County and local officials Tuesday. What happened to the third-grader, who was 8 years old at the time of the incident, is often called being “Baker Acted,” after a Florida law that allows children to be taken to a facility for an involuntary mental health exam if they’re suspected of seriously harming themselves or others in the near future.
At least 1,216 kids were “Baker Acted” in the Palm Beach County School District between the 2016 school year and 2020 school year, according to the lawsuit. As a result, hundreds were removed from their classrooms each year, handcuffed, and driven away by police employed by the school district.
Those impacted were disproportionately Black, including the third-grader who was traumatized, according to the lawsuit. Some allegedly had developmental disabilities and didn’t meet the statutory criteria for involuntary psychiatric examinations. And in several circumstances, the lawsuit alleges, the Palm Beach County School District used the law in a harmful, illegal way.
“Hundreds of students in Palm Beach County are needlessly being pushed out of school and placed in psychiatric facilities for the most trivial and inappropriate reasons that fall far short of what is allowed under the Baker Act,” Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit, said in a statement. “Sadly, Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to this overzealous practice, and we’re suing to put an end to it.”
The lawsuit alleges that “nearly every Baker Act originating” in the Palm Beach County School District “was initiated by an officer” of the district’s police department. In the past, civil rights advocates have slammed the process for contributing to the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, in which kids—particularly children of color and children with disabilities—are forced into unnecessary and sometimes traumatic interactions with law enforcement.
A spokesperson for the Palm Beach County School District told VICE News that it “remains committed to meeting the mental health needs of its students and continues to comply with the Florida Mental Health Act.” The spokesperson noted that the district had even added a department of behavior and mental health that hosts approximately 200 employees and provides “clinical supervision of 170 school-based behavioral health professionals.”
“It is the school district's position that it meets and exceeds the needs of students with mental health issues,” the spokesperson said.
But one 9-year-old with disabilities, “E.S.,” was seized for an involuntary examination after he allegedly started ripping up and eating pieces of paper in 2019, according to the lawsuit. The child also swung his arms and hit a board-certified behavioral analyst, as well as a window, according to the lawsuit. Although the child was later able to “self-soothe,” a cop tackled him to the ground and took him away in handcuffs, according to the lawsuit.
Another child with disabilities, described in the lawsuit as “D.P.,” was Baker Acted after he became upset and threw stuffed animals around the classroom in 2018. He also allegedly made comments like “I wish I could shoot you in your [expletive] head” and “Right now I am thinking I want to hold my breath so I can die.” Staff members allegedly restrained the child face-down on the floor.
The third-grader with the drawing of a rocket, “L.A.,” had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which her mother had informed the school about more than a month before the March 2019 incident, according to the lawsuit. On the day that the teacher discovered the drawing, she ran out of her classroom out of embarrassment and fear she’d get in trouble. Staff contacted a school police officer and a “mobile response team” to bring the child into the principal’s office.
While there, an officer alleged in a report that L.A. had stated that she wanted to kill herself. The officer also reported that the child said she dealt with abuse and didn’t want to go home to her mother and that she had the devil inside her. Furthermore, she asked the officer to take out his phone so she could “show you how I’m going to kill all of you.”
A mobile response worker recommended counseling for L.A., not commitment, but she was Baker Acted anyway. Officials contacted the child’s mother, who was living in a homeless shelter at the time. She walked to the school but was not allowed to see her child, according to the lawsuit.
Additionally, the cop asked L.A. “if she wanted to see what handcuffs felt like before putting them on her” to “induce her to not resist handcuffing.”
“He then handcuffed her while walking her from the school to his police car, removing them before placing her in the back of the car,” the lawsuit alleges.
L.A. was taken to a “Baker Act receiving facility,” where she spent two days, during which she only saw her mother for one 30-minute visit.
“More than two years later, L.A. still has nightmares about her experience with the Baker Act,” the lawsuit alleges. “She was bullied by other students, who knew that she had been transported for a purported desire to kill herself and told her that she should ‘just do it.’ Unlike prior to the involuntary examination, she has had suicidal thoughts after it, due to the trauma she experienced there.”