ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - It has been two weeks since Brian Martinez watched Orange County deputies load his 10-year-old autistic son into a cruiser and haul him away from the boy’s elementary school.
“I had to politely convince the sheriff not to put my 10-year old into handcuffs,” Martinez said.
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Martinez’s son is on the autism spectrum, but is considered high-functioning. His son was at Stone Lakes Elementary playing games in class with other students when he was triggered by an event.
“We got a text saying he was acting out, had made some comments about hurting himself, but that everything was under control,” Martinez said. “At no time did we know that a Baker Act was a possibility here and that he was going to have to be taken away in a cop car to the medical facility.”
The Florida Mental Health Act, more commonly known as a Baker Act, is an involuntary mental health commitment for up to five days. Martinez’s son was loaded into the deputy’s cruiser and admitted into University Behavioral Center near UCF.
Orange County Public Schools said it could not discuss the specific details of this incident, but did release a statement saying: “Schools follow the IEP (Individualized Education Program) and established behavior plan. When the behaviors escalate to the point where the behavior plan is not effective, and child is posing harm to self, a school could make a decision to assess and determine with SRO (school resource officer) if baker act is needed.”
“It is almost never appropriate to Baker Act an autistic child,” attorney Kendra Parris, who helped the family get their son released after just 24 hours, said. “If he had been suicidal or on the verge of hurting himself, the facility would have not released him.”
The Martinez family said they understand that everyone, from the teachers, to the administrators, to the deputies, were trying to do the right thing to protect their son. However, the Martinez family said what could have prevented the incident was a simple phone call, telling them to pick up their son before law enforcement had to be called.
“We weren't given the opportunity. By the time we arrived, the actions had already been taken,” Martinez said.
This is not the first time a Florida school has used a Baker Act on an autistic student.
In February, a 10-year-old autistic child in Hernando County near Tampa was Baker Acted. That same month, two more children near Miami were Baker Acted at their school.
Advocates point out that in Florida, the definition of mental illness does not include developmental disabilities, such as autism.
“This whole time, you are trying to put a spin on it as a parent. I was telling him, 'It’s OK. You’re not being arrested.’ All I wanted to do was to get him out of there,” Martinez said.
Florida has no state statutes that deal with when a school should use a Baker Act. Instead, it us up to each school district.
In Orange County, the “Threat Response to Suicide and or Harm” contacting a parent or guardian is the ninth step, and initiating a Baker Act is the sixth step.
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