New program allows police to notify schools when children experience trauma

Notifications identify students who may need extra attention, compassion

Trauma can unravel a student's ability to learn, so local police and schools are banding together to help.

SAN ANTONIO – Violence in the home, deaths in the family, car accidents and shootings are all heavy and traumatic events that deeply affect any child involved. 

Trauma can unravel a student's ability to learn, so local police and schools are banding together to help.

San Antonio is the first city in Texas to use a citywide program called Handle with Care, where police responding to scenes identify the children affected and send notifications to their school district, alerting the staff that the children may need extra attention.

RELATED: SAPD to notify schools when students witness traumatic events

"Sometimes if they fall asleep in class, it's not really because they're lazy. It's because they're going through stuff at home," said Tyasia Rock, a fifth grade student at Cameron Elementary School.

Tyasia knows some fellow students who struggle with their home life, and she's glad police and schools are getting more involved. 

"A lot of times, the trauma transforms into behavior, outcries. They're hungry. They're sleepy," said Diana Centero, student support services director for the San Antonio Independent School District.

In January, Centero teamed up with San Antonio police Officer Doug Greene to establish the Handle with Care pilot program in San Antonio, which has since expanded citywide.

Greene said the majority of notifications are for trauma involving domestic violence, but children in the community are burdened with many things. 

"You have assaults. You have drug raids. You have shootings that take place. You have car crashes," Greene said.

Details of the trauma experienced by a student are never revealed to schools. The notification simply says "handle with care," but it can be labeled high priority. 

"If there's any situation where death is involved, serious bodily injury, those are very traumatic situations," Greene said.

"It's like, 'Hey you're sleepy.' Instead of sending them to the office, they send them to the nurse to take a 15-20 minute nap. If they're hungry, we give them a snack just to alleviate some of the basic necessities but still protect their privacy," Centero said.

She said many times, teachers are the first to notice changes in students.

"They're the ones that say, 'Hey, can you check on so-and-so because I'm a little concerned that he's not himself today, and we got a Handle with Care last week.' So we can just do a continuum of care," Centero said. 

The program has been so successful the San Antonio Police Department is adding a new computer program so officers can send notifications from out in the field. That's something Greene said is rewarding because officers see trauma at scenes but rarely get to follow up.

"We have a job to do, but sometimes, you go home and you're still thinking about these families," he said. "And knowing that we can send a notification to the schools, it feels good because a lot of our officers are parents as well, and this is the same thing they would want for their kids."

Both police and school staff members have received training for the Handle with Care program.

"We don't expect our teachers to stop teaching. We just want them to have a head's up, to be observant," Centero said.

UT Health San Antonio's Salud America organization helps train school staff. The program also offers online action packs, so other districts around the state and nation can learn how to set up the same program.

San Antonio has become an example of how the program can work effectively. 

"We've had calls from Houston, Eagle Pass. We've had calls from Dallas. They're looking to implement it, as well," Centero said.

Local expansion is still continuing. The Bexar County Sheriff's Office and the San Antonio Fire Department have both expressed interest in joining the program, which means notifications could soon include children whose homes have burned down.

About the Author:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.