New program aims to reduce student trauma

Posted 10/26/19

Area schools and law enforcement agencies are working together to ensure that students who experience trauma are treated with compassion.

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New program aims to reduce student trauma


Area schools and law enforcement agencies are working together to ensure that students who experience trauma are treated with compassion.

Handle with Care, a program launched this week, calls for officers who come in contact with a child or teen on a call to set in motion a communication chain that will notify school leadership before the next school day begins. Examples of traumatic events would be drug overdoses, domestic violence situations, a raid at the home, a shooting or a serious car accident. 

“It will be a simple email – the child’s name and the words ‘Handle with Care.’ No other information,” said Tina Aaron, director of Youth Advocate Programs in Jasper.

One local principal told Aaron that leaving out the details will not only protect student privacy but will also ensure that all trauma will be treated as equally important.

"Sometimes what might not seem like a crisis to a teacher is very traumatic if you're 6 or 8," she said.

Aaron will work with personnel in each school system's central office to identify the student’s school. School leaders will then be alerted that the student has experienced some sort of traumatic event so that he or she can be observed closely.

Student will not be approached unless their behavior at school warrants intervention. Then school leaders will work together to get them the help they need, whether it is a visit to the school counselor or connecting the student to an outside organization that offers resources.

"Our teachers want this information. It would help so much to know that a student is going through something. Something as simple as not making them take a test that day could make such a difference for a child," said Walker County Schools Mental Health Director Misty Whisenhunt.

Jasper City Schools Superintendent Dr. Ann Jackson said she is thankful to be partnering with local groups to better address the needs of students. There has been a system-wide focus this year on better understanding trauma, known to school personnel as adverse childhood experiences. 

"We want to be responsive to the needs that our students have. We know how impactful trauma and violence can be on their success in school. The more of these adverse childhood experiences they have, the more difficult it is for them to be successful," Jackson said.

The program has the potential to not only impact student success but to also address mental health needs of students.

The suicide rate among youth ages 10 to 14 nearly tripled between 2007 and 2017, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month.

Walker County is likely the first in the state to implement the program, according to Aaron.

There will be monthly follow-ups with all schools that received a Handle with Care notification to determine how the process worked for the student and school and whether additional training on trauma or resilience is desired.

From the standpoint of law enforcement, Handle with Care provides a simple, cost-neutral way for officers to feel that they are getting some help for youth they encounter on the job.

"You wonder about what happens to kids when you leave a scene. Now we can pass them along to the people who are around them every day and can give them the extra attention they need. It's a relief for us to know that they are taken care of," said Walker County Sheriff's Office Director of Operations Nick Key.

WCSO and Jasper Police Department have already signed on to the program. The process of working out details with area municipal police departments is ongoing.

JPD Chief J.C. Poe said the collaborative spirit that makes programs like Handle with Care possible will gradually change the narrative about Walker County.

"We've been known as a bad county — drug-riddled, major crimes. I think that's changing," Poe said.

Aaron, who spoke of the trauma she experienced in childhood and young adulthood at the Walker Area Community Foundation’s annual luncheon in August, began looking for possible intervention programs after she realized how frequently the two local school systems were referring at-risk youth to YAP.

After researching ways to create a trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive community, she was inspired to bring West Virginia’s Handle with Care program to Walker County. 

The program started at a Charleston, West Virginia, elementary school in 2013. The program’s website cites a national survey that found 60 percent of American children have been exposed to violence, crime or abuse.

“Prolonged exposure to violence and trauma can seriously undermine children’s ability to focus, behave appropriately, and learn. It often leads to school failure, truancy, suspension or expulsion, dropping out, or involvement in the juvenile justice system,” according to the site.