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Superior Schools initiate Handle With Care program

Law enforcement will give the district a heads up if a child has witnessed a traumatic event.

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SUPERIOR — The Superior School District is partnering with the Superior Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to launch a new initiative this fall called Handle With Care to support students who have witnessed trauma.

The program provides the school with a “heads up” when a child has been identified at the scene of a traumatic event, ranging from a domestic violence situation or fire to a drug raid in a home. Law enforcement officers who encounter a child on a call will email the child’s name and the words Handle With Care to the district administrator’s office before 8 a.m. the next day. The principal of the school the child attends will be notified and alert the child’s counselor or teacher, who will provide support on an individual basis.

“We’re not asking anybody to intervene and provide counseling or anything like that, but simply watch for warning signs that the child might be under stress or fatigue, the child might need some time to sleep,” District Administrator Amy Starzecki told the school board at its Monday, Aug. 1 committee of the whole meeting.

No additional information about the situation is provided.

“There’s no confidentiality laws broken or passed here,” said board member Ed Gallagher, a detective with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

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“It is simply understanding that we need to handle this child with care as they return to school the next day,” Starzecki said.

Originally piloted in Charleston, West Virginia in 2013, Handle With Care has expanded to communities throughout the country, according to the national Administration for Children and Families.

“Statistics show that over 50% of students often have exposure to trauma or traumatic events in the community, and we know that trauma can have a direct impact on student learning in the classroom, so this is an attempt to really support students who have been witnesses of trauma,” Starzecki said.

A similar Handle With Care program was implemented in 2017 between the Duluth Police Department and the Duluth School District. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, police department spokeswoman Mattie Hjelseth said, it put a pause on everything and the program morphed into a hybrid version.

Duluth law enforcement officers who encounter a child at a traumatic event now relay information to school resource officers, who then reach out to the superintendent or principal to let them know the child could need extra support. Hjelseth said the program has been helpful.

“I think open communication overall is definitely helpful, whether that’s between the students and school resource officers or the school resource officers and teachers, superintendents, principals,” she said.

Superior’s Handle With Care program is just one tool, but it aligns with the work the district has been doing, Starzecki said.

“Four years ago we provided training to all staff as part of the welcome back training in August regarding trauma and trauma sensitive schools. This initiative aligns to that message and the work we have been doing for the last year to support social emotional learning across all schools,” she said.

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Childhood trauma can have a lasting impact, increasing the risk for psychological, behavioral or emotional problems; substance abuse; academic failure; and poor medical health, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.

“Schools have an important role in decreasing the impact of a traumatic event on a child,” Starzecki said. “Children spend the majority of their day in school where caring adults are available to help them. Educators can help children by providing the structure of a usual routine, providing a safe place to share concerns, being sensitive to cues in the environment that may trigger a traumatic response, and providing additional supports.”

Handle With Care is expected to be in place by the time school starts Sept. 1. Gallagher said law enforcement officers will receive training on the program later this month.

This story was updated at 4:15 p.m. Aug. 3 with Ed Gallagher's correct title with the sheriff's office. It was originally posted at 3 p.m. Aug. 3. The Telegram regrets the error.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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