A West Virginia program that connects school districts with police to help students exposed to trauma is helping educators give quick and nurturing care to at-risk students.
Started in 2014 in Charleston, a city in the thick of West Virginia’s opioid crisis, the Handle With Care program partners districts with law enforcement to support children who have been touched by crime, either as victims or as bystanders. The program has since spread to school districts in 20 other states.
Developed by the West Virginia State Police’s Center for Children’s Justice, the initiative also provides educators with a blueprint for developing trauma-sensitive schools.
The program starts when police responding at a crime scene encounter a child who’s a direct victim or bystander. Officers take the child’s name, age and school, and notify their district, says Andrea Darr, the program’s director.
“Either a confidential text or email is sent that says, ‘If you’re getting this message about Little Johnny, it means he’s been on the scene of a police incident in the past 24 hours and might exhibit academic, emotional or behavioral problems—please handle with care,’” says Darr.
Educators then respond with counseling, extra attention or patience, as needed. For example, a student may be given some quiet time during the day or postpone an exam.
“A lot of people think this program is just a notification, but it’s not fair to identify a kid and not do more to help them,” says Darr. “It puts extra eyes on these students at risk.”
The three-part program also encourages the development of trauma-sensitive schools and access to mental health providers.
Helping students with trauma through the day
Kanawha County Schools, a district of 25,000 students in Charleston, averages three to five Handle With Care notifications per week. Monday usually is the most active day, says Jon Duffy, director of counseling and testing.
When the district receives a notification from law enforcement, a text and email are sent to the appropriate school principal and lead counselor. They respond that day, usually by connecting directly with the student and then checking on them over the days following the event. Privacy and discretion are integral to the program.
“It’s helped to raise awareness for our teachers to better understand some of the difficult things that are happening in the homes of our children,” says Duffy.
Handle With Care fits the district’s philosophy of “be nurturing and supportive,” says Superintendent Ronald Duerring. Duerring follows up with principals on every notification the district receives.
“The program gives us additional information when something has gone wrong in a student’s life, so that if they are acting up or falling asleep, we have a better understanding of how they got there, and we can better help them through the day,” says Duerring.
‘Great things happen’
The Handle With Care program is free for school districts, and that includes all materials, videos and PD resources. A website template is also available.
When implementing the program, getting law enforcement in the habit of sending notices can be a challenge, says Darr. “They have to understand that even their presence at a small event can be upsetting,” she says. Once they realize how much it helps the kids, the buy-in is easier.
“This all doesn’t happen overnight,” says Darr. “But once you get into it and start working, great things happen.”