National Center for Youth Law

STRATEGIES

D.P. v. School Board of Palm Beach County

Police employed by the School District of Palm Beach County illegally use the Florida Mental Health Act, also known as the Baker Act, to subject hundreds of students each year to involuntary psychiatric examinations, without their parents’ input, consent and, sometimes, over their objections. Police take students, some as young as five years old, from their classrooms and schools, handcuff them and sometimes put them in hobble restraints, and transport them to psychiatric facilities, where they wait hours or days for an examination to be completed.

Black students are seized for involuntary examination at twice the rate of White students, and the racial disparity is even starker for children under age eight. Students with disabilities are also disproportionately seized for involuntary examination.

Records show that district police knowingly use the Baker Act on children whose behavior is due to autism, even though the law does not permit psychiatric examinations on this basis.  Records also show that district police seize students with disabilities for involuntary examination when the district is aware of services that could prevent any need for such seizures. The police also fail to consult mental health resources, including mobile crisis teams and the children’s own therapists. 

The lawsuit alleges that these actions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Florida Educational Equity Act, as well as parents’ and students’ rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. 

The plaintiffs seek systemic changes in how the school district uses the Baker Act, including: 

  • Empowering parents to make decisions about whether their children are involuntarily examined; 
  • Requiring that trained medical and mental health professionals, not police, advise parents or make decisions about whether to use involuntary examination; 
  • Eliminating the policy of handcuffing all students during transportation to a receiving facility;
  • Using less restrictive and more effective outpatient treatment for children genuinely in need of mental health treatment; and 
  • Providing school district staff with accurate training about the Baker Act and the potential harms of unnecessary involuntary examinations.