A New Bill Could Change The Way Florida Handles Children’s Mental Health

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Nadia King was calm by the time police officers arrived at her school to transport her to a mental health facility.

Her great-grandmother had just died. The 6-year-old girl and her family, of Jacksonville, had returned from the funeral in Ohio just a few days earlier, so her mother let the school know her daughter’s behavior might stray from the usual. But when Nadia began acting out in class, she was sent to Riverpoint Behavioral Health and kept there for 48 hours.

The Early Learning and Elementary Education Subcommittee of the Florida House of Representatives met Tuesday to address how schools and law enforcement should deal with mental health concerns among Florida students like Nadia.

Nadia’s mother had no idea what was going on until she received a call from the hospital letting her know she needed to meet her daughter at the facility.

State Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando

State Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, presented a bill to the committee that would prevent this from happening to other parents.

If passed, the proposed bill would require the parents or legal guardians of students institutionalized under the Baker Act to be notified prior to the student’s transportation to a receiving facility. If the student’s parent or guardian is unable to be reached, law enforcement agents are advised to proceed as usual.

The Baker Act allows mental health professionals and law enforcement to provide emergency mental health services and up to 72-hour detention for those who prove dangerous to themselves or others and refuse a voluntary mental health evaluation. If the individual is deemed at-risk during his or her evaluation, he or she will be admitted to a mental health facility; otherwise, he or she will be released.

The proposed bill came as an amendment to one filed late last month. The initial bill would have required that plans include procedures to assist mental health providers in attempts to verbally de-escalate crisis situations before initiating an involuntary examination.

The revised version calls for new training requirements in crisis intervention for school safety officers in place of this stipulation.

State Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, said she thinks there is a need for uniformity across Florida in how the state deals with mental and behavioral health crises, highlighting that the bill is a step in the right direction.

The audience and other committee members were also pleased with the proposed bill, but they expressed concern that it does not best serve the children of the state without the original bill’s explicit verbal de-escalation requirements.

Karen Woodall, executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, said the Baker Act process can be a traumatic experience for children, even for those who simply bear witness to it.

“Children being taken from school in handcuffs in the back of a police car to a facility where they don’t know anyone because they had a mental health or behavioral health episode… is very concerning,” she said.

More pacification efforts need to be made before a student is removed from his or her school or school-sponsored activity, Woodall said.

The initial bill would have also required a memorandum of understanding with a local mobile crisis response service. These responders are better trained and more capable of dealing with mental and behavioral health crises than families and loved ones or emergency medical technicians who are often tasked with handling these situations.

District policies would be established to ensure these response teams would be contacted before initiating an involuntary examination.

Woodall said these stipulations are necessary to avoid the trauma that comes with institutionalization, especially for children.

The primary avenue through which children are institutionalized is local public schools, which lack the data to truly understand what is happening on the ground, said the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches.

Over a 15-year period, the number of children subject to involuntary commitments under the Baker Act has increased at a faster pace than any other age group, according to a 2021 Senate report by the Professional Staff of the Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs.

In 2017, 31.5% of high school students experienced periods of persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness within the past year, an increase from 28.5% in 2007. In the same year, 17.2% of high school students reported they seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, an increase from 14.5% in 2007.

Students face social stressors such as parental substance use, poverty and economic insecurity, mass shootings and cyberbullying among other things, the report said.

This year, students are also facing the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated some of these issues and created some new ones.

In a recent survey of more than 1,000 13- to 17-year olds in the United States by the American Psychological Association, 43% said their stress has increased over the past year.

According to the organization, older children often internalize symptoms of stress such as anxiety and fearfulness, while externalizing behaviors such as irritability or aggression.

“What they really need is not handcuffs in the back of a cruiser,” Meyer said. “What they really need is an adult who can help them through their moment of crisis.”

About Lyric Lighty

Lyric is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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