Content warning: gun violence.
The morning of Oct. 24, 2022, I was facilitating a meeting in Charlottesville, Virginia for education and youth development leaders when I got word that my 15-year-old godson had been shot at his high school in St. Louis, where I live. He was alive, seriously wounded and being treated at our local children’s hospital.
One of the meeting attendees was my friend and colleague, Chidi Jenkins. Jenkins is a former teacher and fellow parent who was previously appointed as an advisor on childhood trauma and resiliency to Virginia’s former governor, Ralph Northam. In that role, Jenkins led state efforts to respond to young people and communities most impacted by trauma. After I shared the news and ended the meeting, she drove me to the airport.
During the drive, Jenkins used her experience in education, public safety and health care to help me tell my own children, who are 9 and 12 years old, and who both have a sibling-like relationship with my godson. She suggested that after I spoke to my children myself, I should call the administration at each school and ask them to handle my kids with care.
The elementary school my younger son attends was incredibly supportive. The adults who teach my fourth grader were privately told about our family trauma. They were reminded to show extra care and concern toward my child, and to let me know if there were signs of distress or behavioral changes. My child’s classroom teacher actively communicated with me by text.
The middle school my older son goes to did not respond as well. My call went unanswered and my message was passed from teacher to principal and then delegated to an assistant principal, who called later that day and said: “I don’t know what it means to ‘handle your son with care.’”
Given my background in education and social work, I found myself in the unfair position of instructing her on ways to show support, which was challenging for me because I was moving through my own grief and supporting my family.
Being equipped and ready to respond when students experience a traumatic event must be a top priority for every educator in America. Unfortunately, it is not a universally required part of educator training or professional development. Students do emergency drills, but staff seldom run scenarios and simulations that provide time to develop and practice appropriate trauma-informed responses to use with students in crisis.
This is more urgent than ever. While we can’t predict the future, the data suggests that more students are suffering than ever before:
This captures only a fraction of the trauma American youth face. Behind these statistics are students living with everyday adversity, loss, fear and anxiety. There are many situations that unexpectedly catapult a child into crisis, including watching a loved one suffer, living in challenging circumstances or experiencing a sudden tragedy.
In 2013, Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School in Charleston, West Virginia, partnered with local first responders to pilot a model for how to support children faced with a traumatic event. It was dubbed “Handle with Care.” According to the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice, the school was in a part of the city with high levels of drug use and violent crime and this model was designed as one part of a plan led by the U.S. state attorney’s office to address drug use and street crime in the city.
The Handle with Care model is simple and effective. When a member of law enforcement or a first responder encounters a child during a traumatic incident, such as a drug raid, a car accident, a situation involving domestic violence or a house fire, they collect the child’s information and notify school administrators before the next school day. The alert includes the child’s name and the message “Handle with Care.” No personal details are shared, but the notification prepares the child’s teacher and activates school-based supports, which may include postponing tests and deadlines, providing on-site mental health counseling or referrals, offering an adjusted schedule, or scheduling a visit with a therapy dog.
The power of the model is in the preparation and practice behind it. First responders and educators know what to do, and have a fairly automated system for working together. Teachers at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School are trained on the ways trauma affects student learning and behavior. The school has various trauma-informed interventions in place, which means they are ready when a child needs extra care.
At the state level, the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice hosts a Handle with Care Conference and offers trainings and resources for educators on trauma-informed care. This ensures that when first responders notify a school that a child was involved in a traumatic incident, the staff have the skills and strategies to step in and provide support.
When a community adopts a combination of trauma alerts with trauma-informed training and action, students receive the real-time care they need, teachers are empowered to appropriately support students they care about, and barriers to learning and development are mitigated or removed. Having a system like this in place can also help an administrator or teacher who encounters a student with learning or behavioral difficulties to ask, “What’s going on with this child that I might not see?” rather than, “What’s wrong with this child?”
In a school that commits to handling students with care, staff can operate with the knowledge of how trauma disrupts learning and behavior, and adjust their own responses to students, showing compassion, love and accommodation.
Because there are traumatic events that don’t involve first responders, schools might consider ways to expand their approach to include caregivers, coaches, counselors and other adults. Caregivers should be able to send an alert with limited detail to teachers by email or an online platform to let them know that something has happened that requires sensitivity, support or additional services.
Schools might also consider going beyond the episodic use of a model like “Handle with Care,” to a more holistic and healing-centered schoolwide approach that can support students in three phases of crisis and trauma response — before, during and after an event takes place. Then schools can provide:
- Anticipatory care for students who are struggling with a potentially traumatic event. This might include an upcoming surgery, an illness, a court hearing, the death of a loved one or a divorce.
- Acute crisis care for students in active crisis and trauma response. This might include a mental health crisis, a serious medical event or a disaster — and may or may not involve first responders or law enforcement.
- Continuation care for students experiencing protracted trauma or grief who need sustained support in the weeks and months after a crisis event, as well as students who experience chronic stress and ongoing adversity.
Handling students with care when they experience trauma is critical. Whether using the Handle with Care model started in West Virginia or another approach, it is important to recognize that anyone can support a child in crisis, not just mental health staff. This mindset, paired with a proactive set of strategies, can prompt adults to be aware of how they interact with and treat a child, such as the tone of their voice, the expectations they set and their approach to behavior management.
As educators, we are charged with helping students learn and making sure they feel safe and supported in our care. We cannot prevent most crises from happening, but we can work to ensure students feel loved and supported in the midst of their most challenging times.