Detention may be the wrong option for a student who acts out in class, and sometimes a stomach ache is more than just a stomach ache.
That’s why Manatee County put its Handle With Care program into action on Monday. As part of the initiative, law enforcement officers will notify the school system when a child experiences something traumatic, such as domestic violence or drug use, allowing schools to better understand their students’ behavior.
“Police at the scene of the event have been trained to identify the children present, find out what school they attend and send the school a confidential email that simply says, ‘Handle (child’s name) with care,’” a news release from Drug Free Manatee states. “The memo will not provide any other details in order to protect the family’s privacy.”
Handle With Care started in West Virginia, where one police department sent nearly 600 notices between 2013 and 2016, according to the state Center for Children’s Justice.
Drug Free Manatee has partnered with local law enforcement agencies, the School District of Manatee County, the Safe Children Coalition and the Department of Children and Families to start a local version of the program.
Children who experience something traumatic may carry their baggage to school, said Nathan Scott III, a child welfare systems advocate with the Family Safety Alliance in Sarasota.
He said trauma could translate into aggression, laziness or a physical illness.
“Some kids, especially young ones, they don’t really know how to verbalize it, so they come to the nurse’s clinic with a stomach ache or a headache or whatever the case may be,” he said.
Scott pays attention to the number of children removed from their homes in Manatee County. On Monday, he said domestic violence and substance abuse were the leading causes of removal in 2018. He believes the opioid epidemic is largely to blame, especially since removals often increase alongside overdoses and drug-related deaths.
A student may never hear from his or her school after an email is sent through Handle With Care. However, staff members could take action if they notice a change in the student’s behavior.
“The intent then, if there is something that happens, is to divert them to a social worker or the guidance counselor instead of a negative behavior response, like in-school suspension,” Scott said.
The program officially started on Sunday, but the first notifications went out after spring break ended and school resumed. Scott said at least two students were the subject of a notification on Monday morning.
In 2012, the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice developed Handle With Care. It held a pilot program in 2013 and then launched the initiative statewide in 2015, according to an email from Andrea Darr, the agency’s director. In February, at least 74 children in 22 West Virginia counties were the subject of a notification.
Handle With Care is now found in about a dozen states, according to the email.
“A kid who’s traumatized, sometimes they just want to be left alone,” Darr said in a follow-up phone call. “The best way to be left alone is to act up.”