Donna Burns

Instructor Donna Burns, left, guides Elkhorn school employees in a discussion about handling children who might be traumatized. (Contributed photo/Regional News)

FONTANA — It is a very simple program to help children deal with trauma.

A child is caught up in a situation that involves the police, such as a shooting, a car accident, a drug raid at home, or a domestic incident.

The next day, a teacher, school administrator or campus cop receives an email from police that is brief and to the point: the child’s name and the words “handle with care.”

No further details are provided.

But it is a signal to teachers and staff that this student will need some help and care.

Fontana School Board members recently discussed the Handle With Care concept.

County law enforcement agencies and health and human service officials are working on making Handle With Care a countywide program starting next school year.

Emily Bryant, a supervisor at the Walworth County Department of Health and Human Services, said children who experience a traumatic incident often have a behavioral incident in the school the next day.

Handle With Care gives school officials a a chance to reach out to the child and connect with him or her before something happens.

Being informed that a child needs to be handled with care changes a teacher’s question from “What’s wrong with you,” to “What’s happened to you? What’s your story?”

If the child does not want to open up about the incident, teachers might try other kinds of positive comments to start a conversation.

“They might say, ‘Hey, I love your haircut, or ’I like your shoes, or ‘Let’s shoot some hoops,’” Bryant said.

Handle With Care will segue with a program called Trauma Informed Care, which is to instruct teachers, administrators and school staff to deal with children who have suffered trauma.

County health and human services personnel are already trained in trauma care.

Law enforcement agencies need to report children to the county health and human services department who have primary contact with police, as either victims of a crime or as persons suspected of having committed one, said Walworth County Sheriff Kurt Picknell.

There is no requirement now that children living in a household visited by local law enforcement be reported to health and human services if the child is not involved in the incident.

“The program would be designed to fill that gap,” Picknell said.

Picknell said trauma “is an occurrence that most people do not experience in their lives.”

Trauma is not just physical injury, he said. It can also cause lasting emotional and psychological injury.

The program is already in place in the Elkhorn Area School District.

Training for teachers and school staff in dealing with trauma was required under state School Safety Grants through the state Department of Justice, said Rita Geilfuss, director of student services at Elkhorn Area School District.

Full-time teachers, aides, counselors and administrators received two hours of trauma care training in October, and another two hours in December from instructors certified through the state Department of Public Instruction, Geilfuss said.

According to the public instruction website, schools were required to provide three hours of trauma care training to as part of the safety grants distributed through the state Department of Justice this school year.

Jason Tadlock, Elkhorn district administrator, said Elkhorn schools have always had good communications with police.

For years, Elkhorn police have been giving school officials notification if a student had been affected by a traumatic incident, including crime, abuse or death.

“It gives an extra heads up,” Tadloch said of teachers and school staff. “It’s helping them handle situations with more sensitivity.”

It gives teachers a chance to pull a child aside and perhaps work with a social worker.

“We want to make sure the kid has proper support,” Tadlock said.

Elkhorn Police Chief Joel Christensen said police officers had been sending information about children who have had contacts with police and emergency medical services through the school district’s school resource officer.

Christensen said he became aware of Trauma Informed Care through the school safety grants. He said he and other officers thought it might be a good idea for law enforcement, too.

“A group of us in the department went through Trauma Informed Training for law enforcement,” Christensen said.

While looking up Trauma Informed Care, Christensen said he also came across the Handle With Care program.

The Handle With Care program formalized sets procedures and priorities to ensure that police can communicate with the schools without violating any confidentiality requirements, Tadlock said.

Picknell said other Walworth County police chiefs learned of Handle With Care during a Walworth County Law Enforcement Executive Committee meeting.

After learning of the Elkhorn program other police chiefs said they wanted to see the program in their communities as well, Picknell said.

Christensen said expanding the program countywide will ensure that all Walworth County children would be covered, even those families whose children open enroll in districts outside their communities.

Picknell said he believes the program should spread outside Walworth County as well, because there are Walworth County children attending schools outside Walworth County.

Chris Schultz has been a reporter for more than 40 years. He has been with the Lake Geneva Regional since 2010. He covers the Lake Geneva City Council and the Lake Geneva area schools.