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A 7-Year-Old Girl Is Baker Acted at Belle Terre Elementary; It’s Not Punishment, District Says

| March 4, 2014

Elementary age children are transported in police cruisers, just like adults, when Baker Acted. (jocelyndale)

Elementary age children are transported in police cruisers, just like adults, when Baker Acted. (jocelyndale)

The father of a Bunnell Elementary School kindergartener had a startling story for the school board.

“The reason I’m here to speak with you,” Chance Hancock told the board members in late January, “is about the use of Baker Acting elementary-age students.”

The Baker Act is a section of Florida law that enables police to detain an individual and forcibly transport him or her to a psychiatric facility, where the individual can be held against his or her will, typically for 72 hours. For the Baker Act to be invoked, the individual must be engaged in acts that may be harmful to others or to that individual—and the threshold for that determination is quite high: the harm must be “serious.”

Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre, in a recent appearance before the Palm Coast City Council, said his deputies are Baker Acting some 40 people a month, though those are overwhelmingly adults.

The Threat of a Baker Act

“On Dec. 11, I was contacted by Mr. Dupont, principal of Bunnell Elementary school, that my kindergartener was having a tantrum,” Hancock continued. “On the phone, I was able to talk with my student, my kindergartener, and calm him down. Shortly after the phone was transferred back, he got upset again. Mr. DuPont then told me, if I didn’t get there promptly, he would Baker Act my kindergartener.” Hancock paused for a long time. “Of course by the time I got there, my kindergartener was calmed down, had full control of himself.” In fact, the kindergartener was in the board room, having sat through two hours of board—and quite dull—business until the public participation segment.

“Now, of course when he did contact me,” the parent said, “my student was in his office, in a room full of adults. Now, the basis for a Baker Act is that that person has reason to believe that that person has a mental illness, or has substantial likelihood that without treatment, that they will cause serious bodily harm. Now this is going to be used on a kindergartener. This was a simple tantrum. I’ve never experienced it in my home. The only time I’ve heard of this tantrum is when he is in school.”

Hancock described the use of Baker Acts on a kindergartener as “an overly extreme choice,” and requested that the “incident” involving his kindergartener review the case and ban the Baker Acting of elementary age students. He tried to have discussions with the school board attorney and the district’s student services—unsuccessfully, he said.

Verification Shielded By Privacy Laws

The school district will not discuss disciplinary or mental health issues involving students. Those matters are protected by privacy laws, which makes it impossible to verify the parent’s claims (there are always many sides to such stories), but also makes it just as difficult to verify whether the school followed the correct procedures: a principal threatening to invoke the Baker Act is not among those procedures. Nor is it in a principal’s power to invoke the Baker Act: school officials can present evidence to police or to a certified mental health therapist, and only police or the therapist may sign off on a Baker Act, says Katrina Townsend, the district’s director of student services. (The judicial system may also Baker Act an individual, but that represents only a fraction of cases.)

And before seeking to Baker Act a child, normal protocol entails following a series of steps, Townsend said, including filling out checklists (one that analyzes the threat to self, one that analyzes a threat to others). A guidance counselor normally fills out the checklist and comes up with a “moderate” or “high” rating for the severity of the threat. If the behavior continues, “we don’t have a choice,” Townsend said. The Bake Act must be the next step.

Threatening a parent with Baker Acting a child is not protocol.

Just as clearly, if the child exhibiting the behavior does not meet the criteria for a Baker Act, it cannot be either invoked, and certainly not threatened.
Hancock’s child was not Baker Acted. But last week (on Feb. 25), a 7-year-old girl who attends Belle Terre Elementary was.

The incident unfolded after noon as Julie Menéndez, the dean of students at Belle Terre, told a deputy that a student in her office had been “harming her teachers and fellow students,” according to a sheriff’s incident report. Menendez told the deputy that while the 7 year old was in the office, she “ started to throw a temper tantrum, throwing items and disorganizing her office. Ms. Menendez further advised at one point the student threw thumb tacks on the ground and while picking them up she began to stab Ms. Menendez’s knee causing a small laceration.” Menendez declined medical attention (she was treated by the school nurse) and said she didn’t want to press charges, but wanted to get the student help.

The 7-Year-Old’s Story

The student told the deputy that she was upset because the teacher had taken away her recess for misbehaving, and that when other students who had something she wanted would not give it away, she grabbed it anyway, the report states. When she was disciplined, she started “striking and kicking the teacher.” The child said she’d thrown the thumb tacks, but had thrown them near the dean, not at her. Only then was the parent contacted, in the narrative sequence of the report. The child’s mother told the deputy that there had been issues before, but that her daughter had never “escalated” the situation before to the point of using such things as thumb tacks. The child is bipolar, the mother told the deputy, but medical help has been scarce for lack of money.

The child was then Baker Acted, and taken to Halifax Behavioral Service in Daytona Beach.

It’s not uncommon: of 150,000 involuntary Baker Acts in 2011, the last year for which complete numbers are available, 18,000, or 12 percent, were children, according to the Department of Children and Families. In Flagler County, about three or four Baker Acts occur every month involving students, Townsend said, though those tend to be older, high school students. Baker Acts involving children as young as Tuesday’s case are very rare.

James Miley, the sheriff’s deputy who investigated the case and drove the child to Daytona Beach in his cruiser, subsequently explained the process in an email, in response to a question about the details of the transportation: “The female’s mother was on scene at the school and present throughout my investigation,” Miley wrote. “Both school administration and I held a lengthy conversation with the females mother as to what would happen next and the full baker act process, the females mother agreed with me as this was the best course of action for her daughter to obtain help. The juvenile was transported to my vehicle accompanied by a few personal items to keep her calm throughout the transport. The juvenile was also given stuffed animals that I carry in my vehicle to keep her calm and so she can have a sense of comfort. Due to the females age and calm demeanor at the time she was not secured, only seat belted in the back seat of my cruiser. The juvenile was transported to Halifax behavior services in Daytona a service that deals with juveniles only for further evaluation.”

“It’s Not an Arbitrary Decision”

Sheriff Jim Manfre had recently spoken of his agency winning a grant to keep Baker Acted individuals from having to be driven to Daytona Beach, and to minimize deputies’ responsibilities to make certain calls that mental health professionals can make better. But the grant was not of use in this particular case.

“We were not able to take advantage of the provisions contained in the new grant,” Sheriff’s Spokesman Bob Weber said. “It is my understanding that some minor construction needs to occur prior to the facility being put in to use. Halifax Behavioral Services (HBS) where the child was taken is different than Halifax Hospital where we take most adults. HBS deals just with juveniles from Pre-K through 12th grade.”

Townsend could not discuss Tuesday’s incident because of privacy laws. Nevertheless, Townsend, who strongly believes in the purpose of the Baker Act, stressed that Baker Acting a child must not be seen as punishment.

The school district’s responsibility to legally and ethically keep a child safe.

“Sometimes with the younger students it is difficult to imagine putting them through a Baker Act, but a Baker Act is not a punishment,” Townsend said. “Our responsibility and our legal responsibility not just our ethical responsibility, is to keep a kid safe.”

Along the way, the school tries—or must try—to do everything possible to diffuse a situation, including enlisting the help of parents or family. But when a parent or family member cannot respond, or refuses to do so, “then we have to move forward,” Townsend said, noting that in many cases there are mental health factors that need to be addressed. A Baker Ac t may well be the way to effectively address the issues. That’s why parents are at times the district’s strongest allies in going that route, Townsend said.

Townsend has visited some 20 times the facility where students are involuntarily taken and held, and where, typically, they are evaluated and either released to their parents or guardian the same day, or held for several days. The average Baker Act stay in psychiatric wards is between four and five days, but that’s for adults and children combined.

“It’s not an arbitrary decision,” Townsend said. “If they meet the criteria we have to keep them safe.”

Weber said that sheriff’s deputies in general receive some training on mental illness and Baker Acts during their police academy. “Many of our people have also attended the 40 hour Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program that gets a lot more in depth on a variety of topic,” Weber said. “We are actually hosting a class for 1st responders in May at the Sheriff’s Office.”

That training notice is below.

Crisis Intervention Training

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21 Responses for “A 7-Year-Old Girl Is Baker Acted at Belle Terre Elementary; It’s Not Punishment, District Says”

  1. Mike says:

    Parents….please, please PLEASE discipline your children!!!

    • I/M/O says:

      I/M/O for a parent and school administrators to collaborate in getting a child necessary medical treatment for a psychiatric illness is not “Discipline.”

      This child as per the Mother had already been diagnosed as Bipolar.

      Bipolar Disorder needs to be treated with medication. Hopefully what has occurred here is this Mother will now be given access to that medication. I/M/O that is exactly what the Social Workers at the Halifax Behavior Services in Daytona will set up once a Psychiatrist prescribes the medication.

  2. Genie says:

    Seven years old…this is horrifying…and a very expensive way to discipline children. Is the incidence of mental illness in children really this high?

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a trained professional on site, or at least rotating schools in an attempt to head off scenes like this one? Our police officers certainly have other things to do.

  3. Ella says:

    That is what guidance counselors and parent involvement is for. Baker Acting a person should be reserved for the most extreme cases and doing that to a child over thumb tacks is unbelievable.

  4. orphan says:

    In this wild and wacky country that some of us love to call ‘home’…where is the ‘home’?
    What happened to the family with a mom and dad raising their children without outside interference?
    How has OUR government gotten so fully involved in the everyday raising of our children, to this point? Because WE let them!
    While I understand and indeed agree that a violent (throwing objects) act does seriously need attention to protect the rest of us, my question is as stated above: “What happened to the family” unit?
    Sadly, I have to accept that the days of my wonderful carefree youth will never ever be available to the children of today, and I feel so sad for the kids because of this. Sooo sad.

  5. MaryAnn Norvik says:

    Perhaps teachers and administrative staff should be required to take the CIT training in order to learn how to properly deal with volatile situations and learn more about mental health. This training is not just on Baker Acts but how to deal with potential violent situations and to avoid escalating the situation using words to calm the person.

    • Sue says:

      Maybe everyone missed the part where they said the child’s mother admitted the child was bipolar, not on meds and not able to be treated because of financial circumstances. The situation could have quickly escalated to something extremely more serious, we saw the up (thumbtacks) the down could easily have been swelling said thumbtacks and tearing thru the throat, esophagus, etc.
      From what this article states, this child was not disciplined for having a mental illness, but treated for the mental illness and given the care needed.

  6. beachlady says:

    To the person above, No, teachers and staff should not required to do any of that. They are there to teach, not be mental health providers. The parents of these children really need to step up and teach their children respect, manners and responsibility. So many parents really believe the school should raise their children. As long as parents won’t take responsibility neither will their children. If a child has mental issues then the parent needs to make sure the child is receiving proper treatment, not the teachers. I would be willing to bet though, that most of these cases are not related to mental illness, just lack of parenting in the home.

    • A.S.F. says:

      While I am all for parents taking responsibility for teaching all the factors “beachlady” mentioned above (respect, manners, etc.) , mental illness cannot be simply or completely “willed” away. While there are an unfortunate number of parents who fail to seek appropriate mental health treatment for their child (or themselves) due to fear of the stigma, ignorance or just plain denial, there are also an unfortunate number of children who don’t get treatment because insurance would not pay for it before healthcare reform or because there was inadequate or no insurance. There is also an incredible lack of resources in terms of Psychiatrists, therapists and clinics/hospitals who will treat young children with serious behavioral and mental health issues. Then there is the problem of medication…There are real concerns about treating children with psychotropic medications…And the drugs that are approved for usage are often extremely expensive (and were, in the past, often not covered by insurers because using them on children was considered to be the category of “off-label” usage.) There are often unfortunate side effects that make their use problematic, in the long-term especially. These drugs are used as a last resort and have to be carefully monitored on an ongoing basis..Some Doctord recommend “Vacations” (periods of non-usage) to combat possible long-term side effects. This has been done historically with drugs that treat ADD or ADHD. Stopping and starting Psychotropic drugs like Mood Stabilizers and Anti-Depressants and Anti-Psychotics, however, can be especially problematic because their inconsistent use can lead to decreased efficacy–The drugs will stop working as they once did–or, at all. In other words, it’s complicated. It’s very unfortunate that this child had to be Baker-acted but I hope that she and her parents will now be able to get some much needed help. I sincerely wish everyone involved good luck. Please hang in there!

  7. Binkey says:

    Administrators and some personel receive Crisis Intervention Training. Additonally, I don’t know what happened in the incidences mentioned in the article, but the way I understand it a risk analysis is completed by the school and then it is left to law enforcement to make the final decision if a child is Baker Acted or not. Also, a person does not have to be acting out to be determined a risk or a certain age to be considered a high risk. For example the calm person who admits to thinking about committing suicide who can describe exactly how he/she will do it.

  8. knowsalittle says:

    For the record, Baker Acting someone, even a child, is not a form of discipline or punishment. It is done so a person who is deemed to be a danger to self or others receives appropriate treatment for what may be a serious mental illness. Is the school supposed to physically restrain a child who is physically out of control or having a tantrum? That would increase the risk of injury to the child and staff. School staff have limited recourse when a student becomes out of control or physically violent. I have personally been involved in numerous Baker Acts in the past 10 years and each one is a difficult decision to make. Many factors are involved in making the decision and it is not made lightly. In my experience, the school system makes all attempts to avoid initiating a Baker Act and tries to involve the parent at all levels. HBS is the only receiving facility in this area for children who are Baker Acted. For the most part, the care and treatment provided there starts the healing process for the student and the family. It is easy to sit back and judge what is written in this article and make comments, but once you have come face to face with a violent situation, your opinions may change. Overall, Flagler County Schools and administration do a great job in handling situations that may require law enforcement involvement and/or a Baker Act.

  9. Enlightened says:

    Wow! This seems a little extreme. Baker Acts are typically used for individuals who have been identified to do harm to themselves, not others. Perhaps parents should be held more responsible for the actions of their children. Once again society is trying to take the easy way out.

  10. Concerned says:

    Poor child. Parents obviously can’t afford expensive doctors and meds. It sounds like they are hoping to get help from the doctor’s at Halifax. So sad.

    There has to be some way people in this country can get mental health care for their loved ones.

  11. Florida Native. says:

    There is no rhyme or reason why things go the way the way they do in Palm Coast or Flagler County. It’s either tarot cards,karma or just lunacy. Baker Acting kids? Really? You can’t make this stuff up.

  12. markingthedays says:

    Let’s not forget the child’s mother was involved in the decision, according to the report. She is just as responsible as the school.

  13. Anonymous says:

    FORTY people a month??!! What is this, Nazi Germany?

  14. Debra says:

    Unless you have walked a mile in someone else’s shoes…………………………..Unless you have had the experience of Baker Acting someone, you have no idea how difficult a decision it can be. There is so much ignorance regarding mental illness in this country that contributes the problem. I believe this mother is so desperate to get her child help that she made a most difficult decision to have her baker acted, not to hurt her, but to help her. THAT, is good parenting, facing a problem head on instead of pretending it does not exist. If the child had a disease we would all expect that she be treated, why do you not believe that her bipolar needs to be treated when this innocent 7 year old child was CLEARLY in crisis? Ignorance?

  15. Teddy says:

    “The child is bipolar, the mother told the deputy, but medical help has been scarce for lack of money.”

    A child suffers and the school calls the cops to have him taken away because his parents can’t afford to get him the help he needs. THAT IS THE STORY! And another reason to smirk when you hear someone say that we live in the greatest country in the world. Far, far from it.

  16. Seminole Pride says:

    Baker Act is used to PROTECT the person from not bringing harm to themselves. Please don’t question it’s efficiency.

  17. Jen says:

    The “father” of the kindergartner isn’t even his father. He is the boyfriend of the child’s mother. He’s a real piece of work, as is the mother, and I am not surprised this “family” is having issues with their unruly children. I feel badly for the children. They’ve been through a lot.

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