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Okla. police, school district team up to help children exposed to trauma

An initiative called Handle With Care allows officers to alert school officials of students who have experienced trauma so they can provide extra care

By Darla Slipke
The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Oklahoma City school officials and police have teamed up to help students who are exposed to trauma through a new initiative called Handle with Care.

It’s a simple idea, but one that they hope will have a big impact on the lives of local students.

When police officers encounter a child who has experienced a traumatic situation, such as domestic violence, a car wreck or the arrest of a parent, they send an email to the school district with the child’s name and age or school so school officials can check on the child the next day.

To protect the child’s privacy, officers don’t include any details about what happened. The email simply says “Handle with Care.” But those three words are all school officials need to know.

“If we have a kiddo that has experienced trauma and we don’t know about it, that student is sitting in class dealing with a lot of feelings and thoughts, maybe feeling alone,” said Teri Bell, executive director of student support services for Oklahoma City Public Schools. “And if we have a staff member who just pays that extra attention, they don’t feel so alone.”

School officials don’t ask the student about what happened. They simply monitor the child and try to provide extra care. If a student is a repeat “Handle with Care” referral, then the school might take additional steps and get the social worker involved or pull in the parents, Bell said.

The program is modeled after one that was piloted in Charleston, West Virginia, and it’s catching on locally. The Oklahoma City Fire Department now participates. The Midwest City Police Department decided to adopt the program, too.

Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes said his department is working with each of the four school districts that have schools in the community: Mid-Del, Oklahoma City, Choctaw-Nicoma Park and Crutcho.

Oklahoma City Public Schools set up a designated email for the program that links to Bell’s account. When she receives a referral, she contacts the principal, the counselor and possibly the social worker for the child’s school.

School personnel said being alerted to the fact that a child has recently experienced something traumatic is helpful because they might not know otherwise.

“They may be in school that day and they’re extra tired and we don’t know,” Bell said. “We’re busy saying ‘get on task, get on task,’ where it could have been that the student was up all night in some type of situation.”

The Oklahoma City Police Department pushed out training for the program in August, Maj. Paco Balderrama said. He said the department has decided to include training about trauma-informed reporting to all new officers during the police academy starting in January and to other officers during in-service training in the spring.

Often children are exposed to traumatic situations and receive no counseling or follow up care, Balderrama said. The next day, they’re expected to go back to school and act like everything is normal, he said, which can be an unrealistic situation when the child has been traumatized.

The child might fall asleep in class or act out. He or she might be distracted, hungry or stressed because of the traumatic situation.

“All these things affect the way that a child learns and can follow that child for years to come if they’re not properly addressed through resources and counseling and services,” Balderrama said.

Before Handle with Care was implemented, police officers had few resources to provide follow up services to children other than situations in which the child was picked up by the Department of Human Services, Balderrama said.

“We haven’t had this mechanism,” he said. “We handle the call, we handle the circumstances, but many times there’s no follow-up to any of these children that are involved in traumatic situations and they’re just left to basically deal with it on their own. That’s what we’re trying to change.”

Now, officers have a mechanism in place by which they know, at the very least, the child will be checked up on the next day at school.

The program can provide a sense of comfort or reassurance to teachers and counselors, too.

Earlier this year, a teacher at Tricia Powell’s school contacted her with concerns about a child’s well-being. Powell, a school counselor at Prairie Queen Elementary, made a DHS report and contacted police. Typically when that happens, the officer gives her a report number and she doesn’t hear anything more, Powell said.

But the next day, she got a Handle with Care email with the child’s name.

Knowing a child has experienced trauma recently helps school officials put the right supports in place, Powell said.

“It heightens our response to that child,” she said. “It lets us know that child is in a current or recent state of crisis … that they need extra support.”

The Handle with Care program is another step that helps school officials be in tune with the families they’re working with, Powell said.

“Because of confidentiality, we don’t often know,” she said. “We’ve kind of compartmentalized, this is the school, this is DHS, this is (Oklahoma City police). The problem is that we rely on and help each other, so I think that this helps us do our part more effectively while still maintaining confidentiality that is that family’s right.”

Last year, Oklahoma City Public Schools started focusing on more trauma-informed practices, Bell said.

In September 2017, with help from community partners, the district worked with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to conduct a survey of students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 to assess mental health and substance use patterns. The data allowed the district and other partners to develop a comprehensive, districtwide mental health action plan.

The initiative, called Embrace OKC, is the latest collaborative initiative of the Oklahoma City Schools Compact, which is a group of community partners working together to support improvements identified by the school district.

“You can’t educate if you’ve got a student that has more basic needs,” Bell said. “We’ve got to address them as a whole child, and it’s exciting to me that the district is doing that.”