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Schools behind bars: 6-year-old Black girl with special needs committed to a mental health facility

Why was a school in Florida able to involuntary commit a six-year-old girl with special needs? The Baker Act.

Last week, the commitment of a six-year old, black girl to a mental health facility sparked outrage and debate about the treatment of children with special needs in American public schools. Importantly, the officers who responded to the call to pick up the child said, “I think it's more of them [the school] not wanting to deal with it.” While the school district is defending its decision based on protocol, an intersectional analysis leads one to ask: What role did the girl’s intersecting identities of age, race, gender, and ability play in the school’s lack of tolerance for her misbehaviors?

What role did the girl’s intersecting identities of age, race, gender, and ability play in the school’s lack of tolerance for her misbehaviors?

The Facts. According to the school, the young girl, aged 6, diagnosed with ADHD and Mood Disorder—was throwing chairs. The child was scheduled to begin autism testing and had recently changed medications. The school called upon a mental health professional, who determined that invoking the Baker Act involuntary commitment procedures was necessary. The police arrived and escorted the little girl to a mental health facility. At the time of the officer’s arrival, one officer noted that the little girl was pleasant. The other officer insinuated that the school was ‘passing the buck’ to law enforcement instead of “dealing” with her behaviors. Prior to this incident, the school had not notified the girl’s mother about any behavior concerns.

The Basics. The Baker Act, the law invoked in this case, is a Florida law that empowers judges, officers, and mental health professionals to involuntarily commit individuals, including minors, to a mental health facility for 72 hours if he or she is a danger to him/herself or others. The legislature intended to design programs “to reduce the occurrence, severity, duration, and disabling aspects of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.” In that vein, the law also provides a guarantee to preserve the dignity and human rights of all persons receiving treatment in a mental health facility.

It is no secret that black girls are discriminated against in school disciplinary decisions rooted in stereotypes about black female identity. The National Women’s Law Center found that black girls are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended than white girls. From the stereotypical lens, school districts have taken the behaviors of black girls and framed critical thinking and self-advocacy as disruptive insubordination. These same schools of thought create an environment of intolerance for black girls—such that an off-hand comment or “sassy” response can yield unjustified, discriminatory punishment with a lasting impact on their academic record.

An intersectional approach, in this case, takes the analysis one step further and asks how did the child’s age, race, gender and ability play a role in how she was treated? Did the school consider whether the trauma of forcing a six-year old to interact with police officers would hurt her academic and intellectual development? Did they consider whether the young girl was able to understand why police officers were escorting her off the premises? Importantly, the young girl asked officers this very question.

Get to the point. A six-year old. Black. Girl. With Special Needs. On new medication. Without intervention from her mother. Without any recent behavioral issues. There certainly was a less restrictive means to ensure the safety of the young girl and others. The procedures followed are rooted in discretion and subject to human bias. A more nuanced, comprehensive approach is warranted before altering a child’s life in ways that cannot be undone. #specialeducation #specialneeds #civilrightsattorney #askangie

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