The number of students being "Baker Acted" at schools here on the First Coast is skyrocketing.
ORANGE PARK, Fla. -- Psychiatric lockup. It sounds like a grownup problem, but increasingly, it's an issue at schools on the First Coast. The number of involuntary commitments, or those committed under the Baker Act, is skyrocketing.
"I didn't feel like want to be alive anymore…so they had to Baker Act me. The first time I remember I had a pitch fork to my neck," said 17-year-old Aerial Snider of Clay County.
"I have had a knife against myself, and it's an awful thing to think about, but there have been times when I've wanted to harm myself, very badly," said 16-year-old Christian Bryan of Clay County.
Snider and Bryan know what it's like to be "Baker Acted". They are part of a growing number of students who have experienced it firsthand. Snider says she's been Baker Acted four times. The first time she says she was just 12 years old.
"I felt worthless. I felt like life wasn't going to get any better," explained Snider.
The Baker Act allows law enforcement, courts and health professionals in Florida to commit someone involuntarily to a hospital or psychiatric facility for up to 72 hours.
The numbers are staggering. Since the 2011-2012 school year, the St. Johns County School District has seen a 440 percent increase in students Baker Acted at school. A district spokeswoman tells First Coast News 12 students were Baker Acted in the 2011-2012 school year. That number jumped to 33 the following school year, and the district reports 65 students have been Baker Acted this school year.
Superintendent Joseph Joyner attributes the spike to increased awareness about potentially dangerous situations and his district being more proactive.
"It's a last resort, but again you don't want a child to harm themselves, so at the end of the day the Baker Act ability of law enforcement is a good thing," said Joyner.
But he says that is only part of the story. "The other piece is I do think there are more children in crisis today. I do see that increasing from year-to-year just based on what we see."
Bryan has his own theory.
"Bullying, it's pretty straight forward to me. I've been bullied a lot because I'm really just a lot different than a lot of people, and that made me a lot more aggressive. I think that might have been more of what put me in there…When I was in the third grade I would get shoved to the ground and stuff. It's a lot."
The number of times the Baker Act is used is increasing at schools across the state. The Nassau County School District has seen its numbers nearly double this year with 8 last school year compared to 15 this school year.
The Duval County School District saw a 38 percent increase in just one school year, 85 students in the 2011-2012 school year to 118 last school year. Figures for this year are not complete at this time according to the district.
It's not just older kids. Last school year more than 60 of those students in Duval County were in elementary school.
These numbers only tell the story of students Baker Acted at school. The numbers don't include students like Snider and Bryan who were taken from home.
"I think the Baker Acts are necessary to keep kids in a safe environment. That is the purpose of the Baker Act, but it is a temporary. It is a band-aid on a bigger issue. It's not meant to be used as treatment," said Kathy Lawrence, SEDNET Project Manager.
Lawrence works with students with emotional and behavioral disabilities and those who are at risk in Duval, Nassau and Clay counties. Two years ago she started a student-centered program called "See You at the Top". She works with students like Snider and her nephew, Bryan.
Snider and Bryan credit Lawrence and her program with transforming their lives.
"Some people would say it is therapy. I say it's just somewhere you can go to relate with others and feel comfortable talking about yourself and just feeling like you are accepted," said Snider. "I might not even be alive if I had not been going to this group.''
The program includes weekly group sessions.
"It's the relationships with each other even more than the adults that really impacts their life. Their families are involved, schools, mental health agencies," said Lawrence. "It is my true belief that in order for kids to be successful all it takes is for one person to really care about them. I think that is probably the most specific type of treatment there is for a child."
Aerial is now getting her GED and plans to go to Cosmetology School.
"Life has been so much better, finally making myself something…I've found what I needed. It was this the whole time," said Snider.
Bryan says he's the happiest he has been in years. "I was there at the first meeting and I've been at everything ever since, and it does change lives. I've seen it work."
"Mental health, if you ignore it, it doesn't go away. That is the truth. It's going to manifest itself somewhere. These kids are going to either end up in jail or in foster care or somewhere. The good news is if it's addressed these kids can live productive, happy lives. I see it all the time," said Lawrence.
So what can you do to help? Lawrence says get involved with a mentoring program. If you're a parent and you don't know how to help your child there are resources available. Reach out to the guidance counselor at your child's school.
Bryan's advice, "If you see it, don't ignore it. I've seen a lot of people who sit there and say oh they will get over it and that's not something that happens too often. If you are violent once, you can't just say he's over it now because that's not always the case. If it happens once you should report it."
"You need to speak up, speak up," said Snider.