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Brownsville Police Sgt. Billy Killebrew knows a lot of children experience divorce, witness domestic violence, and suffer other trauma at home or in the community.
He wants to help those children.
So he worked with advocates to start the Handle With Care Program at the newly opened Jubilee Leadership Academy campus in Brownsville, Texas.
For the program, Brownsville police notify campus leaders when they encounter children at a traumatic scene, so school personnel can provide support the next day, as needed.
“We never know what kids go through at home, they come to school, and sometimes they just don’t feel like being there. They’re in a bad mood, and just like us, as adults, you know, we have a bad day and not everybody knows a source of that bad day,” said Killebrew, the training coordinator for the Brownsville Police Department.
The Issue of Childhood Trauma in Brownsville and Beyond
In Brownsville and across the nation, over half of U.S. Latino and Black children suffer at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), such as abuse, divorce, or parental incarceration, according to Child Trends.
ACEs impact a child’s brain, body, behavior, and school performance. ACEs can also spike the lifetime risk for heart disease, cancer, suicide, substance use disorder, and more.
That is why the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice created Handle With Care.
In a Handle With Care program, local police to notify schools when they encounter a child at a traumatic scene. 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 in a student. School staff and mental healthcare providers are prepared to monitor and provide immediate support for students in the days to come.
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.
This includes San Antonio, Texas – the Handle With Care program Killebrew first heard about.
Bringing ‘Handle With Care’ from San Antonio to Brownsville
Diana Centeno, in her time as director of student support services at San Antonio ISD, helped start Handle With Care in San Antonio in 2019.
They even adapted the program for virtual notifications when COVID-19 struck.
The number of police notifications sent and the number of students who received support “has been astronomical compared to when we first started it,” Centeno said.
“We cannot expect kids to learn and thrive in school when they are dealing with traumatic experiences, and we cannot expect teachers to be proactive instead of reactive when they don’t know if something happened the night before,” Centeno said.
“[Handle With Care] has done an amazing job in giving us educators a heads up in identifying the kids coming to us with trauma.”
In 2020, Centeno joined Jubilee Academies, a charter school headquartered in San Antonio with campuses in Brownsville, Harlingen, Kingsville, and more.
Centeno shared with Killebrew about Handle With Care.
“In working with Sgt. Killebrew for our threat assessment and school safety we built an awesome relationship and I started to talk to him a little bit about what Handle With Care was about and his eyes lit up,” Centeno said.
Killebrew was excited by the potential of Handle With Care in Brownsville.
“[Diana] told me about this program that we’re doing in San Antonio and how it was a great program. So, she introduced it to us and, of course, our Chief [Felix] Sauceda was really liking the way that the program was going in San Antonio,” Killebrew said. “And actually, I went up there to get to go see how it worked in San Antonio and we brought it back.”
What Does ‘Handle With Care’ Look Like in Brownsville?
Centeno and Killebrew expressed the goal of making the program simple for officers for reporting information and educators for receiving notifications.
“We don’t want to create more work for the officers, just like educators so we need to make sure that it is kept very simple and precise,” Centeno said. “When the officers go to the scene, they do not disclose why they are at the scene. All they do is say ‘Hey, heads up, this child was a victim or witness to a traumatic event,’ and that’s all we know and that’s all we need to know.”
Once the information is recorded by the officers, an email is sent to school district personnel.
The district then notifies contacts from specific campus of the student including the principal, assistant principal, the nurse, and counselor, who then notify the student’s educator.
“If we get one in the middle of the night, the goal is to send it out as soon as possible so first thing in the morning, everybody has that information,” Centeno said.
The Next Steps for ‘Handle With Care’ in South Texas
Both Killebrew and Centeno are excited to see the impact of Handle With Care in Brownsville.
They hope more schools will participate, as well.
“We’re implementing, you know, more schools, and we’re telling people, if they want to come join us, you know, to do that. We’re opening the door for everybody that wants to participate in this program,” Killebrew said.
Centeno is hoping to launch the HWC program throughout the other campuses of the Jubilee Academies across Texas.
“That is a goal. My next one on the list is Harlingen,” Centeno said. “I’ve already started some of the leg work there, I’ve met with some of the officers and we’re going to be scheduling a meeting with the chief to see if we can launch it there as well.”
“We see [the students] as our kids and we want to service the whole child beyond the academic pieces.”
You Can Start ‘Handle With Care’ in Your Community!
You can do what Killebrew and Centeno did in Brownsville!
With the Salud America! Handle With Care Action Pack, you’ll find the materials and technical assistance to help school and police leaders start your own Handle With Care program.
“I think it’s very important that we try to get this out as much as possible. A lot of times we focus on the negative of things, and this is a very positive program. I think that that can help and benefit everybody,” Killebrew said.
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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.