In a new program called “Handle with Care,” area law enforcement agencies are giving local schools a heads up when they learn a student has been exposed to trauma.
The schools aren’t given any information about the event, but are just told the student needs to be handled with care.
“This comes into effect anytime there’s a potentially traumatic event, whether it be a car crash, a domestic violence situation, an assault. It’s basically any stressful event that’s going to impact the child’s ability to learn, remember and practice the emotional intelligence side of stuff,” said Wasco County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Thomas, who spearheaded the local start of the program.
“At that point the school takes extra steps so it continues as a learning environment rather than the child trying to get through the day dealing with all the traumatic events they were exposed to,” he said.
“Trauma’s really defined by the individual person,” Thomas said. “Something that’s traumatic for you is not going to be traumatic for me. That’s the brilliant thing about this program. If the individual police officer makes contact with the child and they feel they’re having some trauma, then they can do a hand-off to this program, just to give them additional resources.”
The program, which is in all Wasco County schools in all grades, got off the ground last month. Thomas envisioned each local police agency might be utilizing it multiple times a week.
Thomas first heard about the program a few years ago from Claire Ranit, who at the time was working on a grant aimed at building community resiliency and trauma-informed practices.
Now she is a consultant on trauma-informed practices, resilience-building practices and emergency operations planning.
Trauma-informed practice is a structure that understands, recognizes and responds to the effects of all types of trauma. It represents a shift from asking “what’s wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?”
Ranit’s grant work focused on the health care sector, first responders and law enforcement. Her grant required her to work with fellow grant recipients across the country, and that was how she first learned of the “Handle with Care” program, which started in West Virginia.
Once she told Thomas about Handle with Care, that led to a series of meetings with local schools and police agencies. Details had to be worked with attorneys to ensure confidential information wasn’t shared. Police reports had to be modified to create a check-box for matters that warranted a Handle with Care designation.
Each school has a designee and an alternate, each of whom receives an email that literally only says “Handle with Care,” and the child’s name, Thomas said.
Ranit did training at all the schools on how trauma affects the brain.
She said humans experience a stress response to stressful events, regardless of age. But adults have a few more things working in their favor when it comes to responding to stress.
First, the adult brain is fully formed and can access executive functioning skills and it has had more time to build internal coping mechanisms. Adult brains have developed emotional intelligence to understand and manage feelings.
Kids don’t have that, she said. They’re just learning to identify feelings, to notice how they’re feeling and once they notice them, how to manage them.
Stress also alters how the brain accesses memories. “So even 24 hours after a stressor our brain is not necessarily functioning in a way that would support cognitive adaptive learning, which is what we’re asking kids to do” in school.
The prefrontal cortex of the brain allows a person to retain information and apply it. School asks kids to block out distractions and to focus and redirect their attention, which is all the work of the prefrontal cortex.
A stress response includes healthy responses that are protective, Ranit said. But that protective response also makes learning challenging.
Trauma derails the prefrontal cortex and activates the amygdala.
Trauma also means “I might not be bringing my best self, if I’m a student,” Ranit said.
The limited information from the program is itself only shared with a limited number of staff, she said. “If that kiddo is going to have a hard day, those staff members are going to notice it anyway. If they’re going to notice it anyway, let’s give them a heads up. As humans themselves, maybe they’re stressed, maybe they’re tired. If I’m feeling off, and all of a sudden this kid is presenting a challenging behavior, I might not have the best reaction, I might be frustrated.”
But the Handle With Care program is a way to remind teachers that a kid might be having a rough day, Ranit said, and that maybe their behavior is not about the teacher.
Thomas said teachers are “aware that they’re not going to be asking about the incident, but there’s going to be an understanding that they know the reason for the child’s behavior, and they can offer different approaches rather than thinking the kids acting out, in a disciplinary manner.”
Thomas said of schools, “We didn’t want to tell them how to run their shop. They’ve got the tools to deal with children. If was more on what trauma does to the brain and what it does to a child sitting in class trying to retain information, that was what the training was mostly about.”
Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill said he was excited for the program to be implemented. “As sheriff I’m super proud of both of them, but I’m really proud of Ray. He’s done a yeoman’s job of it.”
Magill said, “I think it’s going to be a real benefit not only to our schools but it’s going to be a benefit to the kids who are victims of traumatic incidents.”
Oregon State Police Lt. Les Kipper said the program will be “another tool when the need arises.”
The Dalles Police Chief Patrick Ashmore said, “I think it’s just another step in communication between us and the schools to make sure children are considered in traumatic incidents and they are literally handled with care.”
Candy Armstrong, superintendent of North Wasco County School District 21, said “The Handle with Care program gives us a heads up that a student maybe struggling emotionally with an event that has happened. We do not need to know details. They may display unusual behavior or seem anxious or stressed. We know something has happened and that helsp us to not add more stress and just be there if they need us.”
Jack Henderson, superintendent of Dufur School, said, “I feel Handle with Care Program is a great partnership which will help schools best meet the needs of their students. Having information about students’ challenges prior to their arrival in school will help our staff support our students and create the best learning environment possible.”
Ryan Wraught, superintendent of South Wasco County School District, said his district was “happy to partner with county agencies to help students who may be experiencing overwhelming traumatic times in their lives.”
The goal of the program is to “support staff to be more supportive when they’re facing challenging behaviors, and to support kiddos who might not be bringing their best self because they had a very rough experience,” Ranit said.
Thomas said the school “won’t push if the student doesn’t want to open up, but it will be an answer for the school if this kid’s misbehaving or secluded that day.”