Anne Arundel police, schools partner to aid students who experience trauma

Phil Davis
Contact Reporterpdavis@capgaznews.com

Anne Arundel County police and educators are working to create a continuum of care for students who experience trauma as they return to the classroom.

The “Handle with Care” program — a joint program between the county State’s Attorney’s Office, police department, Annapolis police and county schools — is an attempt to open up better lines of communication between schools and law enforcement regarding the health of its student population.

Essentially, any time a county law enforcement officer responds to an incident where a child is either a victim or a witness of a traumatic event, they email the principal at that child’s school with a message saying they’re a “Handle with Care” child.

Principals can then address that student’s needs as they see fit. An emphasis of the program is to leave the response up to the administrator. They can determine how to best integrate support structures such as counseling based on that child’s needs.

However, officers give no information regarding the details of the incident and it is up to investigators’ discretion as to what events qualify as “traumatic.”

With the school system enacting a full integration at all county schools this month, police say they’ve already made more than 100 such “Handle with Care” referrals to schools throughout the county.

Mirroring a program first implemented in West Virginia in 2013, the program’s proponents say its a simple, non-invasive way to give school officials a heads up about a student’s experience.

They say teachers will know at least some of the reasoning behind a student who might suddenly be inattentive or misbehaving in class. Its supporters also say it allows school officials to monitor a child’s behavior after an event and potentially intervene with counseling and support.

“We looked at the research out there … it’s kind of incontrovertible that trauma changes brain chemistry, especially in children,” said county police chief Timothy Altomare.

“Victims of child abuse have a much higher percentage chance of becoming victimizers,” he added. “If you can break that chain for one kid, isn’t it worth it?”

Ryan Voegtlin, the director of student services for the school system, said the idea behind the program is to allow principals autonomy over their response.

He said officials understand each school is different and they want to maintain an air of privacy while still giving principals leeway to handle the child how they see fit.

“That’s why we leave it up to the principal’s discretion,” he said. “That was something we preached a lot. Our goal is not to create a situation.”

However, officials know they’re coming close to revealing deeply private information about a child.

And one principal who’s handled three such requests said he wished law enforcement could provide more information to principals about what to expect.

“I think the more detailed information you have, you can respond in a detailed way,” said Corkran Middle School principal Adam Zetwick. “Because then I can direct whatever services I need to give to that child. That’s where it’s hard to respond specifically to something you don’t have the specific details about.”

For Altomare, he said it illustrates a need to have a more open line of communication as officers respond to calls of domestic violence and other directly traumatic events on a regular basis and the child will simply go to school the next day.

He cited his own experience in high school when his father almost died suddenly when he was a student and his mother called the school district to tell administrators what happened.

But he also pushed back against the notion that it was because his mother gave administrators the information about the event itself that they were able to cater to his needs.

He said that as they spoke with officials from West Virginia who’d already instituted the program, they said knowing the details of a trauma “wouldn’t necessarily change the way it would be handled.”

“If the student wanted to talk about it, they could give more information,” Altomare said.

But when it comes to privacy, there’s still the issue of whether administrators will seek more information when the “handle with care” email comes into a principal’s inbox.

Zetwick said he’s handled three such referrals and has never looked any deeper into what the traumatic event might have been.

But all of those interviewed recognized the relevance of sharing any information in the Internet age.

By extension of knowing the child’s parents, any administrator with knowledge of a “Handle with Care” child can search their parents’ names on Google or Maryland Judiciary Case Search to see if they’ve been arrested and the nature of the charges.

Zetwick said he does believe it’d be better for principals to be provided more information up front as to the nature of the incident.

“Maybe down the road, as we refine this system. And it’s hard because they want student privacy to be of the utmost importance,” he said. “I think it’s probably just too early in the process for us to do that.”

Anne Arundel and several other counties have already begun integrating the system and Gov. Larry Hogan announced in February it would be implemented statewide.

Voegtlin said there’s also some hope it could cut down on crime numbers. Altomare and Perkins said statistics show that children who come in contact with law enforcement, whether they be suspects, victims or witnesses, are more likely to do so again as an adult.

“The way to overcome trauma is to develop positive relationships and develop a resilience,” Altomare said.

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This story has been updated to reflect the number of counties that have begun integrating the program.
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