As a child, A.J. Williams was exposed to domestic violence.
Now a police officer in Fort Worth, Texas, Williams is making sure children like him are getting the support they need in school through the Handle With Care program, where police notify schools when they encounter children at a traumatic scene, so schools can provide support the next day.
After COVID-19 derailed an idea to team up Fort Worth police and schools for a local Handle With Care program, Williams reinitiated plans with help from a Handle With Care action pack from Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio.
He trained police and school leaders about the program and brought regional education leaders to the table who helped create a region-wide notification system.
Now police departments and schools in the Region 11 Education Service Center can opt into Fort Worth’s regional Handle With Care program instead of having to create a new system on their own.
The notification system could even be scaled up statewide – all to help children in Texas.
“Sometimes you have a kid that is acting bad because they are trying to mask issues that are going on at home, like domestic issues,” Williams said. “We want to do our part to try to help these kids get through school.”
Williams and His Experience with Childhood Trauma
Williams was exposed to domestic violence in his childhood home.
Sometimes he would go to the school the next day with no sleep and unfinished homework.
“I was that kid that needed to be checked up on,” Williams said.
But his teachers did not handle Williams with care.
Unaware of his trauma at home, teachers gave him bad grades his incomplete homework. They punished him for being sleepy or misbehaving and distracting other students in class.
Williams wishes they had.
He wishes they would have known to check on him if he was sleepy or misbehaving and give him extra time to do his homework.
Today, as a police officer, Williams sees kids who experience domestic violence, crime, or other trauma.
He and other officers check to make sure the scene is safe if children are present, but they didn’t have another way to help these kids.
Then, Williams learned about the Handle With Care program from friend and fellow office, Tracy Carter.
The Handle With Care Program
The Handle With Care program was created by the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice to enable local police to notify schools when they encounter a child at a traumatic scene. School staff and mental healthcare providers are prepared to monitor and provide immediate support for students.
Without revealing any information about the incident, the Handle With Care notification from police gives schools a heads-up to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of trauma so they can respond by providing extra precautions in supporting students in the days to come.
Handle With Care has three main components:
- Law enforcement notification — When law enforcement identifies a child at the scene of a traumatic event (domestic violence, meth lab explosion, drug raid, shooting, etc.), they will send a confidential notification (by email, text, phone, or fax) to the student’s school district or childcare agency with four pieces of information: the child’s name, age, school name, and a message to “Handle With Care.” Law enforcement does not share any details of the incident.
- Trauma-informed school training— The school district or childcare agency will create a process to triage “Handle With Care” notifications from police to relevant teachers and staff. These individuals are trained to observe the student’s behavior and respond to their needs using trauma-sensitive interventions.
- School-located therapy— When school interventions are not sufficient, mental health professionals trained in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior therapy can provide on-site treatment at schools during a time that is least disruptive to the student’s academic schedule (with consent from the parent or guardian).
In 2018, Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio released the Handle With Care Action Pack to give schools and police resources to start conversations, create a notification system, train relevant personnel, and launch a Handle With Care program in their own community.
Cities in over 45 U.S. states have started a local Handle With Care program.
“The goal is to help children exposed to trauma be able to focus, behave appropriately, and learn,” said Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, Salud America! director.
Re-Starting Handle With Care in Fort Worth, Texas
In late 2019, some folks with the Fort Worth Police Department learned about the Handle With Care program and started conversations with Fort Worth ISD about partnering to implement the program.
“We wanted to focus on 26 campuses in the east and central sides of town because the majority of gangs are in those areas,” Williams said. “That is where they have the most high-priority calls, like shootings.”
However, the COVID-19 shelved their plans.
Then, in October 2021, after schools were more adjusted to COVID-19, Williams was asked by Public Information Officer Carter to take the lead on re-initiating conversations with Fort Worth ISD to get Handle With Care started.
With the help of FWPD Chief Neil Noakes’ Senior Administrative Assistant, Nicole Garcia, Williams re-initiated conversations with Fort Worth ISD.
Williams’ wife is a teacher. She also thought it was an excellent opportunity for law enforcement to partner with schools.
“Teachers will be trained to just monitor students. So if a kid does act out, the teacher knows they may have been involved in something the night before so they can send them to nurses office to get some rest or to the counselor,” Williams said. “Or if there is a project or test that day, they don’t have to it because they may have been up late and unable to study.”
As Williams worked, officer Carter connected him to San Antonio Police Department Officer Doug Greene, who helped launch Handle With Care in San Antonio.
Greene advised him to check out the Salud America! Handle With Care Action Pack, which has a story and video about the four people who got the first Handle With Care program started in Texas. It also has resources and slide decks to reach out to partners and create a notification system.
Greene also advised Williams to connect with his regional Education Service Center.
Thinking Outside the School District
Texas has 20 regional Education Service Centers that help school districts attain goals and objectives set forth by the Texas Education Agency.
Each center is a centralized hub for communication, instruction and professional development, and technical assistance. The idea is to help school districts in their region improve student performance, operate efficiently, and comply with state laws and rules.
For example, Education Service Center Region 11, which provides services to 79 public school districts and 40 public charter schools across 10 counties in North Texas, including the Fort Worth ISD, wanted to help its district’s comply with Texas Senate Bill 11 (SB11) and House Bill 18 (HB18), which “mandates the use of trauma-informed practices, programming, and policies for public school districts.”
Region 11 held webinars, trainings, workshops, and virtual video series to train district staff on ACEs. They provided tools to build campus-level, trauma-informed programming.
In San Antonio, Education Service Center Region 20 helped expand the Handle With Care program, which began in three school districts. The regional support helped avoid duplicating efforts as additional police departments and school districts joined in the effort.
Williams, knowing of San Antonio’s expansion, wanted to introduce Region 11 to Handle With Care.
He downloaded Salud America!’s action pack and reached out to the Salud America! team for technical assistance to prepare for his meeting with Region 11.
“I want to thank Salud America! for putting an action pack out there for agencies to start,” Williams said. “It’s a great tool to use if any agency wants to implement the program and at least set its foundation.”
In October, Williams met with leaders at Region 11.
He told Tom Call, IT director, Nicole Garcia, the Chief’s Administrative Assistant, and others about the benefits of the Handle With Care program. He urged them to partner with Fort Worth Police to help pilot the program in 26 campuses in Fort Worth ISD.
Call and his colleagues got on board quickly.
“During that first meeting, when Williams was ‘selling’ the idea of Handle With Care to us, we kind of had to stop them to tell them that we are on board, and we want to know how to make it happen,” said Call.
Region 11 IT Team Creates Handle With Care Notification System
Call and the Region 11 IT team already had contact information for every school district and every campus in their database.
So, they began creating a notification system for Handle With Care.
“Our IT team can build a bridge to send those notifications out to campuses,” Call said. “It seemed natural for us because we are the central hub for contact with the school districts and [our data center] hosts a lot of technical services for school districts,” Call said.
Call, along with his colleague Thomas Dromgoole, wanted notifications to go to two people at each of the 26 pilot campuses, as well as the superintendent.
They created a naming convention for contacts at each pilot campus and created alias email addresses linked to two specific positions at each pilot campus, rather than linked to specific people.
“We get some employee turnover and want to make sure that we’re always sending notifications to a live contact,” Call said.
Call and Dromgoole said they were particularly excited to be part of this project.
As IT, they don’t have lots of opportunities to make a direct impact in kid’s lives.
“As programmers, usually we are in the back room and we don’t get to be involved in something like this,” Call said. “It’s nice that we could use what we are good at to hopefully solve a problem.”
“I mostly handle teacher registration and technological assistance,” Dromgoole said. “That doesn’t feel as rewarding as knowing that because I wrote this program some kid may have a better day at school because teachers knew to love on them a bit more and maybe not do harsh discipline.”
Lt. Williams created a power point presentation for Handle with Care that was used to train Fort Worth ISD staff on the notification system and how to look for signs when monitoring students and offer trauma-informed practices to students.
“This program is kind of one of those things I’m kind of surprised we weren’t doing it before,” Dromgoole said.
Police IT Department Creates Handle With Care Form in Existing Portal
As Region 11 created its Handle With Care notification system, the Fort Worth Police Department IT team worked on theirs, too.
Wanting a notification that fits their existing system and is easy for officers to use in the field, they created a form within their existing portal.
The Fort Worth Police Department’s Handle With Care form is accessible along with all other departmental forms documents. The form has five fields of information for the officer to enter: report number, child’s name, child’s age, child’s school, and priority (regular or high).
“It’s pretty easy,” Williams said. “It’s just a couple of clicks and add the child’s name, school, and age.”
When an officer submits the form, it automatically goes to Region 11.
“The Fort Worth Police Department IT team is phenomenal,” Dromgoole said. “I think between maybe three emails with their team, we had it worked out and it was up and running.”
Police leaders also wanted to integrate training on the new process into their existing system.
So, Williams modified the slide deck provided in the Salud America! action pack and drafted a special order that explains the program and procedure.
Special orders serve as a ruling guide for officers to refer back to.
He also drafted an 8-question test to demonstrate if officers have reviewed the material and are proficient in the new procedures.
The slide deck and special order are sent to each officer through their existing system that puts out all roll call trainings. After officers receive the notification in their inbox, they review the slide deck and special order and take the test. Williams tracks test completion.
“I wanted to simplify the notification as much as possible to where we are not putting a lot on an officer’s plate, because they are already tasked with so much,” Williams said.
Officers have high praise for the program, Williams said.
“I’ve gotten calls from officers thanking me for getting this program started because they’ve been on some pretty bad scenes where they’ve wanted to reach out to kids,” Williams said.
Fort Worth police also built in a tracking report.
Williams can easily select a date range and view a report on how many Handle With Care notifications have been sent to Region 11. He can also categorize notifications based on the nature of the call and the city council district.
The report is also helpful for the victim’s assistance unit, which already conducts follow-ups on domestic violence cases, to contact the exposed child’s family.
Fort Worth Handle With Care Pilot Launches in February 2022
In February 2022, Fort Worth Police Department, Region 11, and Fort Worth ISD began piloting the Handle With Care program in 26 campuses.
“It will hopefully go citywide by the start of the next school year,” Williams said.
Region 11 hopes it goes bigger.
They recognize that officers may encounter and send notifications for students from other campuses or other districts that not in the pilot.
In those instances, a notification stating that no district contact was found will go to someone at Region 11 who will then manually send the notification to the superintendent or someone at that campus.
“That kid doesn’t fall through the cracks just because the campus or district isn’t part of the pilot program yet,” Dromgoole said.
IT Team at Region 11 Built a Scalable Notification System that can be Expanded Across the State
Call knew from the beginning that they needed to think bigger than the pilot schools and bigger than Fort Worth ISD.
He anticipated that as soon as other superintendents in the region heard about the Handle With Care program they were going to want to implement it, too.
Beyond Fort Worth ISD, and beyond Region 11, Call and Dromgoole were thinking about the entire region and even the state.
Thus, they started building out a naming convention and alias email addresses that would work in campuses across the region and across the state.
“We’ve actually built it so that we could scale it out statewide if we needed,” Dromgoole said.
“As of right now, we are staying in our lane and working in our region with Fort Worth Police Department,” Call said. “But if this expands further, we have the infrastructure, the database, and connectivity to do it.”
Call joked that as IT professionals who work in education, a good day for them is when people don’t know they exist because that means there aren’t any problems.
“School districts have enough to deal with,” Call said. “It’s nice to just bow on this and hand it them. It’s nice to know that kids will benefit because of a piece of technology that I built.”
Williams is pleased that children exposed to trauma, like him when he was a kid, now have a safety net.
“If there are outside factors keeping students from being able to focus and learn in school, hopefully with these notifications, teachers can be a little bit more understanding and won’t resort to discipline right off the bat,” Williams said.
Get Help Starting a Handle With Care Program in Your Area!
Do you need help starting Handle With Care in your locality, region, or state?
Download the free Salud America! “Handle With Care Action Pack.”
The Action Pack helps police, school, and mental healthcare leaders start the Handle with Care program, in which police notify schools when they encounter children at a traumatic scene, so schools can provide support right away. They can virtually support kids if school is out for summer or closed due to a pandemic like the coronavirus COVID-19.
GET THE ACTION PACK!
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