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December 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 4

Handling Kids in Crisis with Care

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Social-emotional learning
As educators, we pride ourselves on our knowledge of teaching, learning, academic interventions, and behavior supports. However, considering the life events some of our students face, no matter how well-trained we are, we can't help them enough if our efforts remain individual and isolated. If we join forces with community partners, we stand a chance.
I discovered how true this is when Jackson County in south central Michigan, where my school district is located, implemented an initiative called Handle With Care. This initiative gives schools a "heads up" when a child has been identified at the scene of a traumatic event—such as a house fire, domestic violence situation, or drug raid—so school staff members know to be ready to give that child extra care and support.
Jackson's Handle With Care is a collaboration between the law enforcement community, every school in the county, local mental health agencies, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' Jackson County Office. We noticed a complex problem affecting our students' mental health that couldn't be solved by one agency alone. Jackson County is home to the Michigan State Prison and has a violent crime rate of quadruple the national median. The county is also facing an opioid epidemic; drug misuse is the top killer of young white men, according to an analysis of the county's 1,713 deaths in 2015 and 2016. "Our kids face stressful and traumatic situations at home," says Zoe Lyons, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' Jackson County Office. "[We needed to] break down our agency silos to help kids who are facing trauma."

How It Works

The three components to Handle with Care are law enforcement, school districts, and mental health providers. When police officers are on the scene of a disturbing or traumatic event, they see if any children are present and determine their names and where they go to school. Before school starts the next day, a designated law enforcement official sends the school district an email stating, in total, "Handle (child's name) with care."
The district notifies counselors and principals in that child's school that he or she may have experienced an upsetting event as reported by law enforcement, and a counselor tells the student's teacher(s). Teachers watch for signs of distress in that student. They don't treat him or her differently, ask questions, or press for information about the event; they just remain aware and treat that learner gently.
If the student seems to need more care, he or she is referred to a school counselor or social worker. In some cases, the school (with parental consent) provides a student trauma-focused assessment and therapy at the school through Family Services and Children's Aide, a private community agency. This "third tier" resource has only been needed in about 10 percent of cases; in the other cases, a teacher or counselor responding to the student in a trauma-informed manner was enough to keep that student comfortable in the learning environment.
As of September 2017, Jackson County Handle With Care has assisted 271 students from 18 different school districts. Some 26 other Michigan counties are now considering implementing the program.
Feedback about the initiative has been positive, and anecdotes and survey results show excellent results. One superintendent reported that a Handle With Care student came to school tired and having extreme difficulty focusing. The teacher noticed and referred her to the building counselor. The counselor took the girl to the counseling office and showed her extra attention, letting her play with clay and color while just talking about whatever was on her mind. The student then returned to class and had a normal, nonconfrontational day. Without Handle With Care, the teacher would not have had the insight to keep an eye on this child. The girl could have displayed troubling behavior—or fallen through the cracks.
Handle With Care helps children struggling with the effects of trauma by giving teachers awareness into what's happening in their lives. As school counselor Michelle McBean notes, "Additional patience from the teacher or other staff members responsible for educating that child … provides a stable, caring atmosphere that can allow a student the opportunity to recover from a traumatic experience."
End Notes

1 The Handle with Care program was developed by the West Virginia Center for Children's Justice. More information is available on their website. Special thanks to center director Andrea Darr.

2 Neighborhood Scout. (2016). Jackson MI Crime Analytics. Retrieved from www.neighborhoodscout.com/mi/jackson/crime

3 Clark, N. (2017, June 14). Drug abuse is No. 1 killer of 30-something white men in Jackson County. Retrieved from MLive newssite at www.mlive.com/news/jackson/index.ssf/2017/06/drug_related_deaths_in_jackson.html

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