Abigail Adkins was just six months into her two-year Equal Justice Works fellowship at Southern Legal Counsel when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools where she was working to improve safety by advocating for the provision of comprehensive school- and community-based mental health services for at-risk students.  

“COVID-19 school closures delayed or disrupted special education services and accommodations for a lot of the students I work with, in addition to the broader impacts on student mental health and well-being,” said Adkins, whose fellowship is sponsored by McDermott Will & Emery and Darden Restaurants Inc. “As students return to in-person classes, it is more important than ever for educators and families to support kids’ social and emotional needs.”

She had begun her project by developing resources and researching possible federal legal claims for children who had been inappropriately Baker Acted from school. The claims related to discrimination on the basis of disability, violation of due process, and failure to provide free appropriate education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

New safety measures following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had left students with disabilities and those who struggle with trauma-related behaviors more vulnerable to being inappropriately disciplined, charged with juvenile offenses, or pushed into alternate education rather than identified for additional support.  

“Florida’s educators and families continue to search for the right balance between keeping schools safe and providing fair, age-appropriate behavioral interventions,” Adkins said. “Since starting the safe schools fellowship, SLC has partnered with legal aid organizations, children’s advocates, mental health providers, and research programs to help students access special education services and accommodations that take into account their mental and behavioral health needs.

As co-counsel with Three Rivers Legal Services (TRLS), SLC attorneys filed a series of special education due process complaints involving young children who had been removed from school, over the objection of their parents, for involuntary psychiatric hospitalization. Florida’s Mental Health Act, referred to as the Baker Act, does not give parents the right to intervene once an involuntary hospitalization has occurred.

“Through our work on these cases and extensive public record research, we discovered that many school districts do not track the number of students Baker Acted and lack clear guidelines for when to initiate this measure,” Adkins said. “With little oversight, Baker Acts of children can cause trauma and family upheaval.”

SLC and TRLS won legal settlements on behalf of a 7-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy in Duval County who had been Baker Acted for behavioral issues.

“Sage,” not her real name, had been having outbursts in school, and her mother had to leave work so many times to take her to therapy appointments or to respond when the school called her to intervene that she lost her job, which led to the family losing its apartment and car. One such call came after the school had already initiated the process of having Sage Baker Acted.

“Charlie,” also not his real name, had been repeatedly restrained and handcuffed by the school resource officer, and the school had failed to assess him for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in spite of the mother’s repeated requests for an evaluation. The Baker Act specifically excludes developmental disabilities such as ASD. However, the school initiated two Baker Acts before conducting the testing. Charlie was ultimately diagnosed with ASD, but after his adverse experiences at the hands of the school resource officer he is often afraid to go to school and needs encouragement and positive reinforcement in order to prevent agitation in the mornings.

SLC and TRLS have been engaged in discussions with the school district about implementing better training and policies around student mental health. Meanwhile, they won a due process case against the school district for failing to implement the special education services required by another student’s IEP. “Natalie,” a middle school student, had PTSD and bipolar disorder, requiring consistent, non-confrontational behavior interventions by trained staff in order to prevent her from having aggressive outbursts. These services were listed in her individual education plan (IEP), but due to lack of resources the school had never provided them.

She had been repeatedly restrained by school resource officers, Baker Acted and cycled through hospitals, juvenile detention centers, and different schools. She did best when in a residential treatment center, but Medicaid would not fund placement beyond six months. The administrative ruling now requires the school district to compensate Natalie for the time and services she missed.

“These cases represent just a small sample of the many children unable to access appropriate mental health and special education services who are instead sent into short-term, involuntary psychiatric examinations under the Baker Act,” Adkins said. “As the Safe Schools project continues, SLC will be expanding its systemic advocacy to include outreach to parents around the state and participation in a statewide research program evaluating the effectiveness of behavioral threat assessments in schools.”