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Step in the right direction

By Staff | Jul 2, 2021

While Florida’s politicized Parent’s Bill of Rights bill grabbed headlines and split mostly along party lines, another parental rights bill long in the works finally — finally and unanimously — was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

SB 590, aka the School Safety bill, went into effect Thursday.

Its intention is to better assure — note we did not say guarantee — parents the right to be involved in their child’s healthcare, especially in times of crisis.

Or perceived crisis, for the bill directly addresses what some say are too-frequent abuses of Florida’s Mental Health Act, commonly called the Baker Act after the legislator who pushed its passage 50 years ago.

Originally intended to mitigate the improper and involuntary admission to state facilities of those deemed to have mental health issues, the Baker Act was enacted to protect the rights of individuals while also providing a means to help those in immediate danger of harming themselves or others.

According to some child advocates, its use subsequently came full circle, subjecting some 37,000 kids each year to what the Southern Poverty Law Center called “involuntary arrest, transport, hold and psychiatric examination.”

Specifically at issue were the multitude cases cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center in which police were called to schools before parents were notified, resulting in kids being cuffed and taken, via a squad car, to an inpatient psychiatric facility for an evaluation and possible mandatory hold.

Kids as young as 6.

Kids with special needs, including autism and developmental disabilities.

Kids with a diagnosis of mental illness whose treatment needs do not, according to their own health care professionals, meet the requirement for commitment.

Kids “exhibiting developmentally and age-appropriate behavior” not compliant with in-class behavior expectations.

“Problem” kids, seemingly targeted for behavior deemed disruptive.

And, disproportionately, kids of color and kids in the state’s foster care system.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s scathing report on the misuse of Florida’s Baker Act, “Costly and Cruel” as cited above was among the many calls for action, which also included recommendations for change from the Florida Supreme Court and a Florida Senate report.

SB 590 makes a number of changes.

According to its legislative summary, SB 590, “Requires public and charter schools to make a reasonable attempt to notify the parents of a minor student before the student is removed from school, school transportation, or a school-sponsored activity for an involuntary mental health examination,” defining reasonable as using multiple methods, including phone, text and email, to contact a range of listed contacts, including parents or other guardians.”

It also mandates better data collection and reporting; requires all school safety officers to undergo crisis intervention training; requires school districts to adopt procedures mandating attempts at de-escalation be made prior to initiating a Baker Act and requires schools to contact a health care practitioner capable of initiating a Baker Act in person or via telehealth prior to a Baker Act being initiated.

These are good, sensible steps taken in the wake of escalating “crisis” commitments, sometimes initiated by individuals who can’t even, by law, hand a child in their care a kid’s Tylenol.

We would have liked to have seen this one go a little further in a state touting nationally its commitment to parental rights: Except in the case of extreme medical emergency, parents should have the option of deciding the appropriate course of care for their child.

But SB 590 is a start as it, 1) Provides needed safeguards to make sure the Baker Act is appropriately applied and 2) Requires greater effort to make sure parents are part of the process.

— Neighbor editorial