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Jennifer Webb files legislation to curb ‘unnecessary’ Baker Acts in Florida schools

The bill would increase mental health crisis response training.

Rep. Jennifer Webb is responding to recent reports of children being sometimes unnecessarily removed from school under Florida’s Baker Act over incidents school officials or law enforcement officers deem unsafe to the student or others.

Webb’s bill (HB 1083) would require better mental health crisis training for school safety officers, launch new reporting and tracking requirements for students removed from school or school events and increase parental or guardian notification requirements.

A Tampa Bay Times investigative report last month found that over the past seven years, more than 7,500 students were taken from public schools and put into mental health facilities.

Of those, many were removed using handcuffs and transported in the back of police cars. The report found that some of the children were as young as 6 years old.

And the incidents are on the rise. The Times report identified a 35% increase in public school initiated Baker Acts over the last five years in the Tampa Bay area. In some local school districts, the number Baker Acts increased 75% or more.

The uptick comes as schools are increasingly on edge over potential safety issues as school shootings plague the nation.

Yet little has been done to alleviate instances where children were taken from school under the Baker Act in situations where such a commitment might not have been necessary.

Webb has been working for months on legislation to change that.

Under her bill, school safety officers would have to undergo mental health crisis intervention training that must include information on juvenile intervention from curriculum developed by a national organization with expertise in mental health crisis intervention.

The training is aimed at improving officers’ skills as first responders to incidents involving students experiencing an emotional disturbance or mental health crisis and would include de-escalation training to ensure the safety of both the student and the responding officer.

The bill requires officers to utilize verbal de-escalation tactics before initiating an involuntary examination. Officers would also be required to contact a local mobile crisis response service before initiating an involuntary examination. That contact could be either in person or through telehealth services.

It would also require schools to notify a parent or guardian before removing the child from school in most cases. Exceptions would exist for situations in which school officials or law enforcement reasonably believe there is a threat to the student or other individuals’ health or safety.

While the bill seeks to eliminate excessive removals from school, it also would protect children who are removed by requiring law enforcement officers to use the least restrictive means of transportation available. That means students who might be transported to a mental health facility as if they were under arrest might be able to obtain transportation through a less traumatic means.

The bill would update the state’s already existing Cooperative Health Services Plan that includes evaluations for vision, hearing, scoliosis and growth and development.

Webb’s proposed legislation would also implement data tracking that does not currently exist by compiling data analyzation on the number of involuntary examinations, which includes Baker Acts, and on how those events were initiated.

The data would allow school districts and school law enforcement officers to better track and respond to incidents that result in a child being removed from school or school resources.

The data would include not only the number of involuntary evaluations but also the number of students removed in order to identify incidents where a particular child is having multiple problems.

Sen. Gayle Harrell filed similar legislation (SB 1062) in the state’s upper chamber.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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