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Philly program will train officers, teachers to help students who witness violent crime

The “Handle with Care” initiative, funded by a $1 million federal grant, will train 400 Philadelphia officers and teachers across 15 schools to help students who are dealing with trauma from witnessing violence

Philadelphia Police Commissioner

FILE - Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel speaks during a news conference, Nov. 4, 2015, in Philadelphia. Philadelphia Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker has selected Bethel to become the next police commissioner of the nation’s sixth most populous city. Parker announced the decision Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Matt Rourke/AP

By Kristen A. Graham
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — When Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel worked in the Philadelphia Police Department’s narcotics division, he’d sometimes go into homes of school-age children who had witnessed deeply upsetting events, and think: What’s going to happen to them?

For years, Bethel dreamed of a formal program that would help police and school staff assist Philadelphia students who witness traumatic events. On Monday, Bethel and district officials announced the launch of just such a program, funded with a $1 million federal grant.

The “Handle With Care” initiative, built in West Virginia and piloted across the country, is the first such effort to work directly within a school district, officials said. The funds will pay for training for 400 police officers and school staff and a dedicated staffer whose job it will be to identify such incidents and ensure schools are notified and have the appropriate resources to respond.

The federal grant will pay for a pilot of the 15 schools in the 22nd police district, in North Philadelphia, a 4.3-square mile area that has seen some of the city’s highest gun violence. In 2021, Bethel said, 300 people were shot and 70 killed there.

“Imagine the level of violence our kids are exposed to on a daily basis,” said Bethel. “We’re starting here in one of our most challenging communities, to be able to create this bridge. It fits very directly into the mayor’s charge of making this a safer city.”

Bethel wants the program to go citywide eventually.

Officials already reach out to principals when significant crimes occur. But sometimes, incidents fall through the cracks. Brandy Blasko, a senior research associate in the district’s Office of School Safety, said in recent weeks, a child showed up to school the day after their father was murdered, and because they were not directly involved, the school was not notified.

“The child was acting odd, but no one knew why the child was acting odd,” said Blasko.

Under Handle With Care, which will begin this summer into the 2024-25 school year, school staff would know before the child even entered the building, and be prepared to respond. Ultimately that could have lasting consequences, emotionally and academically, the commissioner said.

“We know that many of our kids who are exposed to trauma will drop out of school, will go onto delinquency, and do other things,” said Bethel.

Jayme Banks, the district’s deputy chief of prevention, intervention and trauma, said that the program will make a difference for the large number of Philadelphia students who witness difficult events outside of the classroom.

“They have to go to school and class carrying this burden, and they’re still expected to function,” said Banks. “This level of stress can interfere with their ability to succeed, make positive relationships. It leads to behavioral issues, it can lead to dropouts. There’s multiple things that can occur when it sits on their shoulders.”

Nadia Porter, a student at Philadelphia Military Academy, where officials gathered Monday to announce the program, is JROTC Command Sergeant Major, a leader at the school. She said she sees the effects of trauma on her fellow students, and said she believes Handle With Care will be beneficial.

“A lot of kids often aren’t seen as trauma victims. They’re seen as problem starters,” said Porter.

“We always wonder here why our kids skip class, why they’re failing, why they come late,” said Kaheem Bailey-Taylor, another Philadelphia Military Academy student and the school’s JROTC brigade commander.

Bailey-Taylor — who earned a Medal of Heroism from the U.S. Army for using his first-aid training to save the life of a victim of gun violence when he witnessed a shooting at a relative’s birthday party — said students are frightened just to get to and from school, especially in light of recent shootings near Imhotep Charter High School and Northeast High.

More support, Bailey-Taylor said, “will bring some hope to the youth.”


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