WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Advocates for kids with disabilities and minority children sued Palm Beach County’s public schools this week over their practice of forcing hundreds of students a year to undergo mental health exams at psychiatric facilities.

Calling the involuntarily exams “excessive and illegal,” the advocacy groups said in a federal lawsuit that the school district had deprived hundreds of children of educational opportunities and inflicted unnecessary trauma by forcing them into mental health centers over unthreatening behavioral incidents.

Florida’s Mental Health Act, commonly known as the Baker Act, gives police, judges and mental health professionals power to require people to undergo mental health exams if they appear to be suffering from a mental illness and there is a “substantial likelihood” that they could cause serious harm to themselves or others.

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But in many cases, the suit alleges, the school district violated state and federal law by invoking the Baker Act to involuntarily commit young children in situations for which the law was not intended.

“School employees, including (school district) police officers, regularly seize children for involuntary examination who plainly do not meet the criteria of the Baker Act,” the suit states.

Specifically, the suit alleges, the county’s schools routinely handcuff and transport young children to psychiatric centers over their parents’ objections, oftentimes for “normal, childish behavior” or for misconduct stemming from developmental disabilities, which the suit says are “specifically excluded from the (Baker Act’s) definition of mental illness.”

The district’s use of the Baker Act disproportionately affects students with disabilities and students of color, the suit stated.

The lawsuit, filed by Disability Rights Florida, the NAACP and five students and their families, comes three months after the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report singling out the county’s public schools for excessive use of the Baker Act.

The report found that the district involuntarily committed 1,217 students between 2016 and 2020, including 254 elementary school students.

Students younger than 8 years old were committed 59 times in four years, the report concluded, while 5-year-old students were involuntarily committed eight times.

That report triggered weeks of negotiations about a legal settlement between the district and the coalition, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, the National Center for Youth Law and two law firms.

But the two sides failed to come to agreement, setting the stage for the lawsuit.

Among the examples of what it calls excessive use of the Baker Act, the suit mentions a 2017 case first reported by The Palm Beach Post last month in which a North Grade Elementary administrator pressed to have a 7-year-old girl involuntarily committed.

The school district said in a statement that its use of the Baker Act complied with state law and that its schools had gone above and beyond to attend to students’ mental health needs.

In the past two years, administrators said, the district created a Department of Behavior and Mental Health Services and hired dozens of extra psychologists to staff its schools.

“It is the school district’s position that it meets and exceeds the needs of students with mental health issues,” the district said.

The suit calls for the affected families to be financially compensated, for the district to halt any illegal use of the Baker Act and for school administrators to better train their staff and track their use of the law.

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