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Florida 6-year-old sent from school to mental health facility; officers say she was ‘fine’

Still frame taken from police officer’s body camera video showing Nadia King, 6, as she is escorted by officers from Love Grove Elementary School on Feb. 4 (The Washington Post)
Still frame taken from police officer’s body camera video showing Nadia King, 6, as she is escorted by officers from Love Grove Elementary School on Feb. 4 (The Washington Post)
by Alex Horton

The body-camera footage starts after Florida police officers had already located their suspect, and she fit the description: hazel eyes, about four feet tall and really concerned about finding candy.

In the footage, Nadia King, 6, emerges from Love Grove Elementary School on Feb. 4, holding the hand of a Jacksonville sheriff’s deputy. The officers were told Nadia was “a threat to herself and others” and was “out of control,” a police incident report later recounted, and it would lead to her committal in a mental health facility.

But one of the officers was perplexed. The little girl in the back seat of her squad car, inquiring about snacks and stopping for sweets, was calm and bright-eyed despite her worry she was going to jail.

“She is fine. There is nothing wrong with her,” the officer tells her partner, the video shows. “She’s been actually very pleasant.”

Her partner agrees. “I think it’s more of them just not knowing how to deal with it,” he says, appearing to allude to people from the school.

Nadia moved through the system - from the school to the police to the mental institution, all without her mother’s consent - under a controversial Florida law known as the Baker Act. It allows law enforcement officers, school counselors and medical personnel to petition for someone who is perceived as being a danger to themselves or others to be institutionalized for 72 hours.

The recently released footage of Nadia has heightened the debate about the Baker Act and about whether the law is allowing cases of overstepping that do more harm than good.

Nadia’s mother, Martina Falk, said she wasn’t notified about the incident until a third-party crisis-intervention organization called her. The next 48 hours was a frightening ordeal for her daughter, who has special needs and found herself in a mental hospital, sedated and confused. Now Nadia finds it hard to be around her doctors, Falk said.

“She used to trust our pediatrician, and now she doesn’t want to set foot in there,” Falk, 31, told The Washington Post on Sunday.

Reganel Reeves, an attorney for the family, said he plans to file lawsuits to learn more about how the state executes the law and how policies at Duval County Public Schools unfolded, saying it’s possible the application can be unconstitutional, especially for children.

Nadia has been diagnosed with ADHD and global developmental delay, which stalls cognitive and physical development, Falk said. She goes to the school because of its special needs teaching, she said.

The school did not decide to send Nadia to the hospital, Duval County Public Schools spokeswoman Laureen Ricks said in a statement. The school, fearing that Nadia was putting herself and others at risk, called a crisis hotline. A third-party nonprofit, Child Guidance Center, dispatched a mental health professional at that point, Ricks said.

That clinician then decided to send Nadia to the hospital under the Baker Act provision.

But it was not clear whether school officials considered other ways to resolve the incident, including calling her mother or her physicians. Ricks did not answer questions about de-escalation tactics used with Nadia or whether her diagnoses were disclosed during an assessment by the clinical social worker from Child Guidance Center.

Ricks also declined to describe the specifics of Nadia’s alleged behavior. The police report uses secondhand information about “attacking staff,” relayed to the deputies by the social worker.

Falk disputed the urgency of the characterization and said the school had not relayed that information to her in their initial calls.

She also said Nadia plainly shows when she is as agitated as the school described - her daughter’s nose and eyes become red and welted. “But when the police were there, she was fine,” she said. What made Nadia truly upset later, Falk said, was when she learned her mother wouldn’t be taking her home.

Child Guidance Center declined to describe its involvement, citing privacy laws, but said it only has the ability to send someone for an involuntary examination. The receiving facility determines the length of stay, said Sherie Smith, a spokeswoman for the center.

The Baker Act has existed for nearly five decades, but it has been used more frequently in recent years, including 7,500 times with children since 2012, the Tampa Bay Times reported last year. There is little oversight by lawmakers, the Times investigation found, amid public outcry that the system speeds children into hospitals as guardians watch powerlessly from afar.

The law was meant to allow intervention in cases of imminent danger, said Mark Cavitt, the director of Pediatric Psychiatry Services at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

But generally in the state, Cavitt told The Post, the law has become an increasingly common tool because of inadequate training or resources for mental health inside the school system.

“It always mystifies me when it’s used for disruptive behavior,” Cavitt said of the Baker Act.

It can also be used by schools to unload their liability for a student onto a third party, Cavitt said. But it can also cut the other way, illuminating unevenness in the application; the alleged gunman in a shooting in Parkland was not detained under the law despite concerns from school officials a year before the 2018 massacre, The Post reported.

Nadia has been moved to a temporary school for children with autism, said Falk, who was left shaken watching her daughter in the body-camera footage.

At one point in the video, the officer tries to put a bright spin on where they are headed. It’s a field trip, the officer tells Nadia.

“We’re going on a field trip?” Nadia asks, excited about the prospect.

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