WEST PALM BEACH (CBSMiami/AP) — The Palm Beach County public school district is being sued by several advocacy groups over its practice of making hundreds of students undergo mental health examinations at psychiatric facilities each year.

The federal lawsuit, filed Tuesday by advocates for disabled and minority children, called the school district’s policy “excessive and illegal.”

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The groups claimed in the lawsuit that the school district had deprived hundreds of children of educational opportunities and inflicted unnecessary trauma by forcing them into mental health centers over unthreatening behavioral incidents, The Palm Beach Post reported.

Florida’s Mental Health Act — also called the Baker Act — gives police, judges and mental health professionals power to require someone to undergo mental health exams if they appear to be suffering from a mental illness and could cause harm to themselves or others.

The lawsuit claims school officials violated state and federal law by involuntarily committing students in situations where the law does not apply.

“School employees, including (school district) police officers, regularly seize children for involuntary examination who plainly do not meet the criteria of the Baker Act,” the suit states.

The lawsuit alleges that school officials routinely handcuff and take young children to psychiatric centers over their parents’ objections. Sometimes it is for “normal, childish behavior” or for misconduct stemming from developmental disabilities, which the lawsuit says are “specifically excluded from the (Baker Act’s) definition of mental illness.”

The lawsuit further states that the district’s use of the law disproportionately affects students with disabilities and students of color.

The lawsuit was filed by Disability Rights Florida, the NAACP, and five students and their families. It comes three months after the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report singling out the county’s public schools for excessive use of the Baker Act.

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The law center found that Palm Beach County schools involuntarily committed 1,217 students between 2016 and 2020. The group included 254 elementary school students, with 59 younger than 8 years old, the newspaper reported.

After that report was released, the county and a coalition of groups worked to come to a legal settlement. But negotiations fell apart, resulting in the lawsuit, the newspaper said.

The lawsuit mentions a 2017 case, first reported by The Palm Beach Post last month, in which a North Grade Elementary administrator pressed to have a 7-year-old girl involuntarily committed.

In a statement, the school district said its use of the Baker Act complied with state law and its schools had gone above and beyond to attend to students’ mental health needs.

The district has created a Department of Behavior and Mental Health Services, and hired dozens of extra psychologists to staff its schools over the past two years, school officials told the newspaper.

“It is the School District’s position that it meets and exceeds the needs of students with mental health issues,” the district said.

The lawsuit is seeking financial compensation for the affected families, and for the district to halt any illegal use of the Baker Act. It also calls for better training for school staff.

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CBSMiami.com Team