Helping Students Back to School Amid Uncertainty

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By Abigail Adkins, 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow cosponsored by Darden Restaurants, Inc. and McDermott Will & Emery. As a Fellow, Abigail was hosted by Southern Legal Counsel, Inc. in Gainesville, Florida.

I began my Equal Justice Works Fellowship in fall of 2019 as Florida schools and communities, still grieving the horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, grappled with new laws mandating additional security measures. Policymakers turned a critical eye to programs offering youth diversion from the juvenile delinquency system and protections for individuals with mental illnesses. News articles referred to them as “teenage time bombs.” Immense pressure was placed on school staff and administrators to prevent the next tragedy, but at the outset, little guidance was given on how to do so.

Working at Southern Legal Counsel, a statewide nonprofit law firm, I started researching the policies school districts had in place and discovered that of the sixty-seven counties in Florida, all of them had different crisis intervention plans and many relied on law enforcement rather than mental health services. Even where rapid response mental health workers were available to help students de-escalate, few long-term services were available to help students with their long term emotional and behavioral needs. Instead, the most vulnerable students cycled through involuntary psychiatric hospitals. Florida’s Mental Health Act, referred to as the Baker Act, does not give parents the right to intervene once an involuntary hospitalization has occurred.

I co-counseled with Beverly Brown, a 2010 Equal Justice Fellow and staff attorney at Three Rivers Legal Services, to file a series of special education due process complaints involving children with mental health needs. One client, Sage*, was a middle school student with PTSD and bipolar disorder. She required consistent, non-confrontational behavior interventions by trained staff to prevent her from having aggressive outbursts. These services were listed in her individual education plan (IEP), but due to lack of resources the school had never provided them. She had been repeatedly restrained by school resource officers, Baker Acted and cycled through hospitals, juvenile detention centers, and different schools. She did best when in a residential treatment center, but Medicaid would not fund placement beyond six months. The administrative ruling required the school district compensate Sage for the time and services she missed.

School safety took on a different dimension when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close in 2020. The focus of my Fellowship shifted to advocating for the provision of disability-related services and accommodation for students in remote learning. Increased numbers of families faced food and housing insecurity and teachers reported feeling overwhelmed and unsupported.

As students go back to school under new CDC guidelines, with contrary public health and safety messages from the state of Florida, student mental health must continue to be a priority. Many students are behind, not just academically, but in their social-emotional learning as well. While my Fellowship ended earlier this year, I am excited to continue my work at Southern Legal Counsel pursuing legal challenges to the Baker Act and other measures where students are improperly restrained, arrested, or excluded from the classroom and treated as threats rather than children in need of help.

*The name of the client has been changed to protect privacy. 

To learn more about Abigail’s work advocating for comprehensive school- and community-based mental health services for at-risk students in Florida, visit her Fellow profile here.

As students go back to school under new CDC guidelines, with contrary public health and safety messages from the state of Florida, student mental health must continue to be a priority.

Abigail Adkins /
2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow