Galena Park ISD launches 'Handle with Care' program to help kids coping with trauma - MMHPI - Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute
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Galena Park ISD launches ‘Handle with Care’ program to help kids coping with trauma

This article was originally published by the Houston Chronicle on October 13, 2022.

Educators are teaming up with law enforcement to launch a program at a Houston-area school district that aims to quickly link students who have experienced trauma or grief with mental health services.

Galena Park ISD is bringing Handle with Care, a program deployed in schools across the country, to the Houston area for the first time.

“It’s trying to make sure we’re taking care of kids the best we can,” district Police Chief Bryan Clements said.

Officers who encounter a child at a violent or traumatic scene — a domestic violence call, shooting homicide or major car crash, for example — will send an automated notification to the school district, Clements said.

A brief message will identify the child and advise the school to handle that student with care. No details from the incident will be shared, Clements said, in order to protect the privacy of the child and family involved in the incident.

Trained school personnel will then look out for signs of trauma or bereavement and refer the student to the school counselor or partnering behavioral health clinics as needed.

“Far too many kids are traumatized, go back to school, no one knows for maybe even years that something took place, and by that point the child is already really struggling — so that early intervention is critically important,” said Julie Kaplow, executive director for the Trauma and Grief Center at the Hackett Center for Mental Health.

Mental health professionals from the Hackett Center, which is helping Galena Park ISD launch the program, visited schools across the district located east of Houston and trained hundreds of teachers, counselors and staff on how to understand and respond appropriately to kids going through trauma or bereavement.

The center also created a video training that was distributed to the law enforcement agencies tasked with carrying out the Handle with Care notifications.

The district includes the cities of Galena Park and San Jacinto, unincorporated Harris County and a small portion of Houston.

Students who have experienced trauma often display behaviors that can be mistaken for ADHD or other behavior disorders, Kaplow said, including running around the classroom, failing to pay attention or struggling to sit still.

Kids coping with loss, meanwhile, may be more withdrawn and lethargic in class.

That’s why it is important for teachers to know about the traumatic events impacting the lives of their students, Kaplow said. It helps educators react with support and understand that negative circumstances might be contributing to poor classroom behavior.

“Instead of yelling at a child or sending them to the principal’s office when they’re really dis-regulated after having witnessed a trauma, they can provide more support, send them to the nurse, create a safe space in the room,” she said.

Mental health intervention is important because bereavement often leads to poor school outcomes for kids, Kaplow said.

The program may also help prevent community violence, including mass shootings, Kaplow said, because it strengthens communication between police and schools and addresses trauma in a child before behavioral problems develop.

“That’s a really important piece of this,” she said.

The Handle with Care program was first piloted in West Virginia schools in 2013. It has since spread to cities across the country, including San Antonio and Fort Worth.

Kaplow said she hopes to expand the program to districts across the Houston area, Texas and beyond. Those involved in launching the program will be tracking the data to measure its success, she said.

The Hackett Center chose Galena Park ISD for the pilot program because district personnel were already interested in the program and students there experience high levels of trauma and loss, Kaplow said.

Clements said he thinks the program will spread organically because the law enforcement agencies overlap with several school districts.

“My anticipation is within a year you’re going to see most of the school districts in Harris County participating — it just makes sense,” he said.

The program involves minimal effort that can make a big impact on a student, he said, and help police officers feel more empowered.

“I can tell you every busy officer on the street has left a scene and wanted to be able to do more…This gives them a way to do something proactive for a child,” he said.

The full article is available online here.