State program helps Michigan schools handle students with extra care if they've experienced trauma

Since it was piloted in 2017, the state's Handle With Care program has helped schools provide compassionate care to thousands of children identified by law enforcement as having experienced a traumatic event.
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Since it was piloted in Jackson County in 2017, the state of Michigan's Handle With Care program has helped schools provide compassionate care to thousands of children identified by law enforcement as having experienced a traumatic event.

"If an officer feels a child was exposed to something that could potentially be traumatic to them or have some impact on them at school the next day, we encourage them to fill out the form," says Jackson Police Department and Fire Services Director Elmer Hitt. The Jackson Police Department has provided 1,008 Handle With Care referrals. "It could be a domestic violence incident, a traffic crash, a house fire, something really significant like a shooting incident, or just a natural death in the home."
Elmer Hitt.
When a law enforcement officer encounters a child during a call, the officer lets the child's school know to handle the child with care. The officer does not share the details of the call, only the child's name. Because school staff and teachers know that a child has experienced a trauma of some kind, the Handle With Care referral helps them prepare to support the child, understand possible behavior changes, and provide the help needed to ensure the child's academic success does not suffer.

"The point is to tell schools, 'Hey, something happened in this child's life that could have an impact on school,' so schools can be mindful of that and potentially take steps to help the child in school, if they need it," Hitt says. "It's really something very simple that law enforcement can do. Ultimately, the goal is to make school more successful for kids."

Handle With Care also encourages law enforcement to build positive relationships with students through classroom visits, stopping by during lunch, and conversations with students to help build positive relationships and perceptions of police.

"We have a more increased focus on our officers regularly getting into schools and visiting and interacting with kids," Hitt says.

Jackson, Washtenaw, and Eaton counties show the way

Michigan's Handle With Care program was modeled after and with assistance from the West Virginia Defending Childhood Initiative. Other organizations that helped develop the initial program are the Massachusetts Advocates for Children: Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, Harvard Law School, and the Task Force on Children Affected by Domestic Violence.
Zoe Lyons.
"When I first read an article about Handle With Care, I couldn't stop thinking about whether we could do it here in Michigan," says Zoe Lyons, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' (MDHHS) Jackson County director. "When I shared it with people in Jackson, our chiefs of police and our superintendents, they all were like, 'We have to do this.'"

Since the 2017 pilot in Jackson County and similar success in Eaton and Washtenaw counties, the MDHHS has implemented Handle With Care in 49 of Michigan's 83 counties, with hopes of including all of them. 

Since the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) launched its Handle With Care program in February 2018, schools in the district have received 2,743 Handle With Care referrals for 4,135 children. (Each referral can include up to four children impacted by the same traumatic event.)  

"It's really just a heads up for school staff," says Shannon Novara, WISD program manager of community and school partnerships. "We asked teachers to be extra aware of the student's behavior and really look for signs that they might need extra support — signs like crying, anger, or withdrawal. If the student is exhibiting changes [in behavior] that prohibit them from regular school activities or impact other students, then we refer them to a school counselor or social worker."
Shannon Novara.
When a child receives a Handle With Care referral, teachers and staff are advised not to ask the student what happened. The school does not call the student's home.

"We also encourage school folks not to assume that the incidents that prompted the Handle With Care notice were anything violent in nature. Sometimes it is, but it could be a house fire or a grandma or grandpa passed away in the home," Novara says. "It's very private. They just get the notice and kind of keep an eye on this kid. He's been through a little bit."

Handle With Care further supports traumatized children who need more help than their teacher or school counselor can provide by connecting them and their families to community mental health services. Better yet, many Michigan community mental health agencies now offer services in school buildings.
Art teacher Steven Pryce teaches at Lincoln High School in Augusta Township.
"To get mental health services on site at the school is really huge," Lyons says. "We work with families all the time at MDHHS who have all kinds of barriers to getting the resources that they need. Having on-site mental health at the school really helps to remove those barriers of transportation, time, and even payment."

Myriad benefits

According to MDHHS, "trauma can undermine children's ability to learn, form relationships, and function appropriately in the classroom." If a child experiences trauma, triggers in the classroom can provoke a fight-or-flight response that shuts off the part of their brain that they need for learning. With a trauma-informed approach, teachers and counselors can help children deal with that trauma response so they can actually learn.
Chris Robinson.
"When you don't do that, you get kids that look like they're just refusing to learn. And then punitive measures add on to their trauma. They are more likely to drop out of school, more likely to engage in risky behaviors. It starts that cycle," says Chris Robinson, MDHHS Handle With Care coordinator. "When you're trauma informed, you deal with the traumatic response and bring them back to being able to learn. Without it, we actually cause more damage."

Handle With Care also works hand-in-glove with the Michigan Department of Education's Social Emotional Learning (SEL) initiative, which is training school administrators, teachers, and support staff in how to help children recognize and deal with their feelings in healthy ways rather than acting them out with negative behaviors.

"SEL training [equips] teachers to help children with self-regulation and self-care strategies," Lyons says. "... If you get a Handle With Care notice for a kid, ... it may not be to the level that you need to send them to a counselor. But you, as a teacher with some of these skill sets, can help them with deep breathing, positive imagery, whatever they need to get them regulated in that moment so they can get them back to learning."

Handle With Care's impacts also go beyond positive effects on individual children. Lyons says the program also helps address ongoing community concerns about implicit bias in policing.

"I love the relationship building that this does between our law enforcement and our schools because we also train our police officers about trauma," Lyons says. "So they begin responding differently when they are responding to calls as well."

Centralized online system launches soon
 
As MDHHS delivers Handle With Care to more Michigan school districts, the goal is to make the program even easier for law enforcement and schools to operate. Since the program went statewide, MDHHS has offered training to those who want to get the program up and running. As early as January 2023, MDHHS will launch a central online system where a law enforcement officer can enter a referral for automatic delivery to the child's school.

"We've embarked on this journey over the last year to create this infrastructure for the counties that currently do Handle With Care, but even more importantly, for counties that we want to try to onboard throughout the entire state," Robinson says. "Right now, counties have had to locally come up with how they email and where they send emails. This infrastructure that we have created will take all of those growing pains out and hopefully entice more counties to join in."

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.

Washtenaw County photos by Doug Coombe. All other photos courtesy of the subjects.