GALLIA COUNTY — A program launched last year to help students who have just experienced a traumatic event continues to grow this school year in Gallia County.
Handle with Care, a program first implemented last October, intends to let school staff know when a child has just experienced a traumatic event, like a car accident, overdose, domestic violence incident, or any other event where a first responder might become involved.
“That officer sends a messenger to dispatch that is the child’s name and their school, and says ‘handle with care,’ and our dispatchers at 911 will email the school with notification that will say (for example) ‘Johnny Smith, Washington Elementary, handle with care,’” Amy Sisson, the Handle with Care County Coordinator, said. “No details, that’s it, in order to protect the privacy of the child.”
Handle with Care started as a program in West Virginia and has since been implemented across the country. Gallia County is the second county in Ohio to implement it. Meigs was the first.
Sisson said the program aims to relieve burdens from students who may have undergone traumatic experiences. When a teacher is notified that a student in their class received a “Handle with Care” dispatch, the teacher is able to assess the child’s behavior.
For example, if a student is sleepy in class, a teacher might suggest they see the nurse “instead of punishing them for going through something awful,” Sisson said. “Often, teachers have no idea what happened the night before, but they have to go through the child’s behavior the next day. It helps them handle it in a way that’s not punitive.”
Sisson said that law enforcement are now more active in schools as well to build relationships with students, and that law enforcement have the opportunity “to positively interact with students rather than just be seen as a negative entity.”
“Our law enforcement has been super pumped about it,” Sisson said. “They’ve been so good about sending the notification, interacting with families. We’ve had multiple stories about kids who met officers in schools and were involved in an incident, and the fact that that child already had a relationship with the officer made the incident a lot better.”
Last year, Handle with Care was only implemented from the end of October until mid-March, when schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This September, Gallia County has received more Handle with Care notifications than in the entirety of last school year’s run.
“On the one hand, that’s very sad that things are happening with children involved, but there’s a need for these notifications,” Sisson said. “On the other hand, it’s a good thing that schools are being notified in a way that doesn’t hurt the child.”
Even with students who are taking classes remotely, Handle with Care notifications are still sent. Sisson believes teachers can still be positive impacts when not in person.
“If the child is in need of more interventions, referrals are made to the parents for counseling through other outside agencies,” Gallipolis City Schools Superintendent Craig Wright said. “This program allows us to provide students with trauma-sensitive support and connect them with mental health services.”
Gallia Sheriff Matt Champlin and Deputy Ryan Hill have been named Handle with Care champions in the state of Ohio.
Handle with Care is in use in every school in Gallia County.
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Sharla Moody is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing from Gallipolis, Ohio. She is a graduate of River Valley High School and currently attends Yale University.