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As Baker Acting of Children Soars, Flagler School Board Grapples With Perceptions of “Outrage”

| April 3, 2014

Not designed for mental health intervention. (Nathan Rupert)

Not designed for mental health intervention. (Nathan Rupert)

As more attention has focused on the intersection of mental health and policing in Flagler County—with the sheriff speaking a growing crisis and a spate of news reports illustrating the use of Florida’s Baker Act with elementary-age children—the school board on Tuesday heard a report and discussed the extent and purpose of such Baker Act incidents in Flagler schools.

The numbers were startling: The cases of Baker Acts involving children in schools has reached 32 so far this year, three times more than last year. Twelve of those Baker Acts took place in elementary schools, 10 in middle schools and eight in the two high schools. Two cases took place at Imagine, the K-8 charter school.

“It’s more surprising and shocking than I was anticipating,” School Board member Colleen Conklin said. “I didn’t realize or think that the numbers were going to be as high, and the incidents as high.”

A Baker Act entails an arrest-like removal by deputies, in handcuffs if necessary and always in a police cruiser, of an individual deemed by be a potential or actual harm to self or others. The individual is taken to a psychiatric ward at Halifax hospital in Daytona Beach and held against his or her will, usually for a 72-hour evaluation, and with restricted interaction with family.

In early March, a 7-year-old girl was Baker Acted from Belle Terre Elementary, and a 6-year-old girl was Baker Acted from Old Kings Elementary, drawing particular attention to how the school district and the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office handle such incidents. The stories, along with a parent describing to the school board his experience with a threatened Baker Act against his kindergartener at Bunnell Elementary, provoked strong public reactions, including some outrage, and led the school administration to schedule a presentation for the board on Tuesday to explain how school staff and school-based deputies handle Baker Acts.

An analogy between asthma attacks and Baker Acts is heatedly rejected as inapplicable, given police’s role in Baker Acts.

The presentation was made by Katrina Townsend, the district’s director of student services. “I have also sat on both sides of the table at Halifax as the parent of a patient, and as a representative of you, the school board,” Twonsend told the board members, “so I like to think I knew a little bit about it as well. And having gone through the process as a parent, I feel confident in the services that they provide to us.”

Townsend described the process of Baker Acting a child as driven by a set of elaborate guidelines and state law. But she acknowledged that the sort of tracking data that could provide a clear analytical picture of Baker Act trends may not be available: Baker Acts resulting from a medical or mental health issue—Townsend gave schizophrenia as an example—will not be attached to the student’s records because of confidentiality rules. Those may be the majority of cases.

“These aren’t decisions that are made because a student is 5 years old and doesn’t get what they wanted for lunch or something like that and has a moment of tantrum,” Townsend said. “These are situations that are genuinely a mental health issue. They are often documented over time before the critical incident, and the Baker Act is an intervention to gets services for that individual and their family.”

But it is not a matter of discipline. “A Baker Act is absolutely not a discipline consequence,” Tonsend said. “It is actually the same way it’s written in the statute, which is that it’s for the purpose of protecting the health, safety and well-being of the person who is being examined, and it is an intervention for that purpose. Now, sometimes, when we are having a discipline issue, a Baker Act might be one of the interventions that we use, for example if we have a student that, just as an example, does a bomb threat. A Baker Act might come out of that, because when the student is interviewed, a lot of other issues might come up that were driving that behavior. But it’s not the discipline consequence. It’s an intervention to figure out what happened, and there is a protocol in place before a student can be Baker Acted.”

Board members John Fischer and Sue Dickinson were critical of “the press” reporting on Baker Act incidents. “I realize that the numbers are soaring,” Dickinson said. “But if we look in our society, unfortunately mental health is soaring everywhere, in every age bracket, in every lifestyle, in every home, for that matter. Again, we have to remember we’re not dealing with the same type of population or people or whatever that we’ve been dealing with 40 years ago. Life is changing, and it’s unfortunate.”

To lessen the impression that Baker Acts were somehow disciplinary or law enforcement matters, Townsend offered an analogy between Baker Acts and an asthma attack. “Mental health, just like asthma can have a critical issue or an event that requires emergency care,” Townsend said, “and in mental health, that emergency care is often a Baker Act. As with a student with asthma, we would not identify that a student was having a crisis and send them home to sort it out. We would transport them for emergency care. So once I heard that analogy it kind of helped me wrap my head a round it a little bit.”

But the analogy did not sit well with Conklin.

Colleen Conklin. (c FlaglerLive)

Colleen Conklin. (c FlaglerLive)

“A Baker Acting of a child is traumatically different than what was just described in the analogy of an asthma attack,” Conklin said, “The reason that you have the media and that you have some become so outraged, if you will, is because it goes against all of our senses, at the thought of a child receiving help by being placed in either handcuffs or put in the back of a patrol car. That is not dealing in the same manner as you do with somebody who has an asthma attack. So I appreciate the analogy. But we are an educational system. We should be a child-centered, focused, educational system, and it is not the fault of the folks who are in our schools. I take responsibility for us because we need to do something in regards to training, professional development, something needs to be different. I have a hard time thinking that the response to the crisis is putting a kid in handcuff and putting him in the back of a patrol car. That to me exasperates the situation and is more traumatizing to a child.”

Conklin had no issues with providing services to students who need mental health intervention. But she objects to the manner of getting the students there. “Good God, is there not another way to have them access services?” Conklin asked. “Take your analogy, and yes, get that child services that they need in that crisis moment but exasperating the situation by putting them either in handcuffs or in the back of a patrol car? That’s why I think you have the public get outraged. I know that’s what outrages me. It’s not so much accessing the services and getting them the services, but it’s the manner in which it’s happening.”

Cmdr. Steve Cole, who oversees school cops for the sheriff’s office, said it’s sheriff’s protocol to use handcuffs only when necessary—when the individual is fighting or combative.

The Baker Acting of children, of course, is not particular to Flagler County. St. Johns County schools, which number some 27,000 students—only a little more than twice the number in Flagler—had 147 cases of children being Baker Acted so far this year, Townsend said.

Jacob Oliva, the Flagler school superintendent, was at a meeting of the state association of school superintendents recently. “This is one of the topics we discussed,” Oliva said. “I did hear from just about every superintendent how they’re seeing a lot more concern in the severe needs of our students, and they’re seeing a high increase in the array of services that they’re having to provide.”

Oliva noted that legislators are now telling school officials to focus their lobbying for money related to mental health matters outside of pots devoted to education. “Because we’re saying we’re having to appropriate more and more of our dollars that are categorized to education to provide mental health services, Oliva said, “and they say, well, you should be lobbying for more mental health dollars.”

The discussion took place during a school board workshop, so public comment was not part of the item, and the discussion had to end so the regular board meeting could start.

“I think this is an opening dialogue,” Board Chairman Andy Dance said. “We can definitely come back with some follow-up information, continue the discussion.” In an emailed comment Wednesday, Dance added: “I think it’s an important discussion to have in light of the press coverage that Baker Acts on students have received recently. This workshop discussion allows us to clarify some of the misinformation in the community about the process.”

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14 Responses for “As Baker Acting of Children Soars, Flagler School Board Grapples With Perceptions of “Outrage””

  1. Jim R. says:

    Get in line, do as you’re told, be like everybody else, don’t object, “life is changing and it’s unfortunate”
    40 or 50 years ago there were just as many wacky rebellious kids but they didn’t end up in handcuffs and the back of a police car. This is a symptom of an emerging authoritarian police state.

  2. Genie says:

    This is pretty astounding information, regardless. I think the public would like to know the circumstances of some of these cases. Are these kids all violent? What is causing this? Is the violence growing or are the behavior standards being lowered?

    Lots of questions here. Would it benefit the district to hire specialists to help with some of this? This is not the role of the Sheriff’s Department.

    This is new stuff. The schools are not allowed to discipline the children anymore. Is this the end result of that?

    • Anonymous says:

      What ever happened to sitting down with the child and find out what is bothering him or her. Baker Acting the kids is not the answer. Sometimes kids that are being bullied and they act out because NO ONE is listing to them. How about calling the childs parent or grandparent.

  3. w.ryan says:

    Times are changing. But isn’t there a better way? Parents are usually the blame but there is definitely more to this simple blame game. Can it be that the tolerance level for behavioral issues isn’t being handled correctly? Thank you Miss Conklin for noting that we need to find a better way!

  4. Steve Wolfe says:

    It certainly is worthy of press attention. It raises a lot of questions and concerns outside of the school setting. Compassionate care for children must be at the fore, but we need answers to some hard questions.

    1. How do our numbers in Flagler Schools compare statewide and nationwide?
    2. In light of the increase in incidents, is the Baker Act local policy in line with the best standards?
    3. What is the catalyst for the increase in incidents? Is there more pressure on student behavior or academic achievement that is tipping the scales of age-appropriate self-control?
    4. Is there a family life component that needs to be addressed? And how in the world would that be handled? There will be privacy and parent’s rights matters if so.

    Those are some things that I hope are addressed very soon. I would like to hear from other readers what other questions should be asked. As there have been some wild policy responses to children’s behaviors in the past, there needs to be plenty of public awareness of any process that is started to address this. This issue could be the tip of a very serious ice berg, and we might want to reverse course very soon, but with measured and wise council at the helm. Please don’t let this get over shadowed by daily life. We are witnessing the formation of a lot of daily lives.

  5. says:

    i would venture to say that a big part of the problem stems from the home. domestic problems, domestic abuse, alcohol and drug abuse in the home , one parent house holds are a big contributing factor. years ago i took mostly adults into custody for mental health issues and they would be held for 48 hours but now children. me personally, i think we are losing the battle.

  6. Mario says:

    First and foremost, police should not be allowed to take it upon themselves to handcuff a young child and transport them in their squad car and lock them up in a psychiatric ward. This is truly unbelievable and completely outrageous!

    The parents, or legal guardians must be contacted immediately upon having an incident where there is emotional, physiological, or psychological distress of a child while attending school.

    We need mental health professionals in every school who specialize in childhood mental health issues and this person must be present at all times when the cops are interacting with a child.

    We need to have full disclosure on each and every event that takes place on school grounds where the police are involved, especially when a young child is being impacted.

    I am outraged to hear that the cops have the authority to lock up a young child for 72 hours without having parental permission.

    I also want to know why the school system is calling the police, before they contact the parents, when issues take place during school with young children.

    I also want to know why the school system is surprised by these numbers. They are the ones who are responsible for our children during school. They had better know exactly what is going on when one of our children is forced to confront a deputy, forced into handcuffs, forced into a police car, and forced into a psychiatric ward.

    No wonder so many parents are opting for home schooling.

    • Steve Wolfe says:

      Lots of the things we are seeing in society stem from the need to be shielded from liability. Lawyers are running the entire planet. Teachers can’t do much for fear of being sued. In fact, parents can’t do much for fear of being sued or prosecuted. This is being allowed and even engineered by the government on behalf of the children. They must know better than we do how to raise our own kids. “It takes a village” really means “it takes a huge overbearing burdensome faceless lame government authority run by people sitting behind desks who know nothing but know better than you because they have unimpeachable decision-making power over all living things.” Welcome to the last days of our Constitution.

    • Roy Ostapko says:

      A Horrifying” experience for a child (and yes, for adults also)

      Synonyms of horrifying:
      frighten to death


      I have SEEN what these CHILDREN experience….

      Yes…police state

  7. A.S.F. says:

    In the “old days”, there used to be Social Workers in schools. But that cost too much money, so that was done away with.. Now, you have kids being transported to God Knows Where, for God Knows What kind of treatment. Some schools have gotten so bad that they now hire “crisis personnel” whose job it is to “intervene” by breaking up fights and taking kids down in specially designed “holds” that will hopefully not end up hurting anyone too badly during a violently escalating episode. Perhaps it is time to re-think our priorities.

  8. Seminole Pride says:

    Kids today can not handle problems, stress, failure,or rejection like my generation, the baby boomers could. We were raised to be prepare to face about anything that came our way. Today’s kids are soft.. We were never told we were “Special”. If we fail, we pull our selves up and put our nose to the grind and worked harder. Kids today couldn’t handle failure, they would go into a meltdown, because schools, parents, and society treats them differently. Even the military’s had to change the way Boot Camp is, because today’s kids can not handle the requirements. Unfortunately parents have raised a bunch of “sissies “,. with know way to handle anything difficult without falling apart.

    • There are a lot more youths with special needs today than when you were rough, tough, and could handle any situation. These students were not asked to be born with their disorders. There is a growing trend of Autism with or without comorbidity. Today the numbers are about one in 68 people being born with this disorder. If you take a bit of time to become knowledged with all the disorders that children have today, you are the one who may not handle the difficult truth that is privy to the public. Many people in the baby boomer generation were with special needs. There just were not identified nor as many as today. And, who do you think the parents are who are having these “sissies”, as children? Do you think that it may be attributed to the baby boomers?

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