A program that notifies schools when their students have been exposed to trauma outside of school is expanding across Bexar County this fall.
The San Antonio Police Department is offering the service to any school in their jurisdiction after piloting it in 50 schools on the East Side last spring.
When officers are dispatched on calls and encounter children who may be potentially traumatized, they send a message to schools with the name of the students and the subject “Handle with Care.” That allows teachers and counselors to keep a close eye on the children and provide support.
The type of incident isn’t included in the notice to protect a family’s privacy, but SAPD spokesperson Doug Greene said extra attention is given to incidents that end in death or the threat of serious injury.
“We’re putting a high priority on them and we’re going to be doing a little more follow up with the schools to just nudge them and make sure that you give extra care to this particular student,” Greene said.
A school may also be notified to handle a child with care if they witness a drug raid, a domestic disturbance or an arrest at the officer’s discretion.
Greene said SAPD officers embraced the program during its pilot because it’s “something that they would want for their own children,” and because it’s an opportunity to meet students’ needs in a positive way.
“A lot of our job is reactive,” Greene said, describing a “pattern of hurt people hurting people.”
“We make arrests in these violent crimes, and when you get to find out more about that person who committed that crime you’ll see that they’ve experienced some kind of trauma or neglect in their childhood,” Green said. “By doing this Handle with Care program, we’re hoping we can remedy that by helping these children early to deal with their trauma and still have productive lives.”
About half of the schools that participated in the pilot were in the San Antonio Independent School District. Now that the program has expanded, all of SAISD is participating.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for me to watch the news because whenever you see some violent act on the news my first question is, ‘Is that one of our students? One of the families of one of our students?’” said SAISD superintendent Pedro Martinez at a recent board meeting announcing the program expansion.
“I really love the fact that we’re getting real-time information now on a regular basis, and sadly we do get called quite a bit. More than I would like.”
In order to take advantage of the service, student support director Diana Centeno said all of the district’s principals, teachers, nurses and bus drivers have been trained to identify signs of trauma using modules from UT Teen Health.
Centeno said a school’s principal, nurse, counselor and social worker all receive the Handle with Care notice and are asked to check in with the students when they arrive.
“If the child is okay to go to class then they remain in class and (the school employee is) just trained to observe from afar,” Centeno said. “If the child is having some breakdowns or is falling asleep in class, they are being trained to send them to the nurse to either take a nap or send them to the counselor to see how they can regroup and support the student versus sending them to the office for disciplinary actions for falling asleep in class.”
Over half of Bexar County’s school districts have signed up to participate in Handle with Care so far, according to Greene, including Northside, North East, Judson, East Central, SAISD, Edgewood, South San Antonio and Southwest. The program is also open to charter schools and private schools.
“We feel that more and more districts as they’re seeing everybody getting involved will get more people involved, and hoping that more agencies as well will start to get involved, because the San Antonio Police Department covers a large jurisdiction but not all of it,” Greene said. “You still have your smaller agencies that respond to scenes as well, and so we’re hoping to get them on board.”
A spokesperson for the San Antonio Fire Department said SAFD has decided to participate. The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office has discussed taking part but not yet officially joined in, according to spokesperson Adelina Simpson.