HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Any number of things can go wrong at school for a child who experienced a trauma the night before, such as abuse, witnessing a violent crime, or seeing a parent get arrested.
The child might fall asleep in class. Forget homework. Act up. A teacher can't respond to that child in the best way without knowing what happened, and the Huntington Police Department is piloting a program with two elementary schools to make sure educators do know.
HPD, along with educators at Spring Hill and Central City elementary schools, have launched a program to help law enforcement and schools work together to help children who have experienced trauma. It's called the "West Virginia Children Exposed to Violence Initiative." Educators at the schools have undergone a law enforcement training program to help educators stay in the know and handle such children with care.
School is the one place where children can be safe, be reached, and where intervention can start, said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia, who joined Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook in sharing news of the program Thursday at the Barnett Community Center. The whole idea is to make sure educators know how trauma affects learning and how to help children cope and overcome it.
Federal inmates in Beckley were asked recently at what age their lives started turning down the path of crime, Goodwin said, adding that they were pretty forthcoming.
"They all said it was between the ages of 7 and 9," he said. "That was the age you would have had to get to them to keep them on the right path. ... It's a very haunting thought that we need to get to kids that young."
Education is key to keeping kids on the right path, he said. Even if they can't do it all, schools can connect kids with other community service programs that could benefit children.
"School is the best place for intervention. Once they check out and are in the wind, God help them," Goodwin said.
The Spring Hill and Central City school districts were chosen to pilot this program because of the high concentration of crime in those neighborhoods, Holbrook said. In 2013, the area that makes up the Central City school district was the location of 23.1 percent of the city's drug crime and 20.6 of its violent crime, he said. The district of Spring Hill Elementary was the location of 23.1 percent of Huntington's drug crime and 25.5 percent of its violent crime, he said.
Under the new program, the first step is taken by the police officers who respond to a call for police. They make a note of any children present — or signs of children, such as toys lying around. They find out the involved child's name and school and forward information about what occurred to HPD victim's advocate Courtney Sexton. She sends a Handle With Care notice to the school, so that teachers who may encounter that child know what he or she has experienced. Care will be taken so that the news doesn't spread rapidly to classmates.
From there, on-site assessment of the child's state can be done, as well as intervention and recommendations or referrals for other services available in the community. It's about connecting the dots, Holbrook said. Maybe one child could benefit from a good after-school program where he or she could meet new friends. Another child might need counseling.
It's already being done to an extent, but having an established program is key to things happening as smoothly and effectively as possible, said Goodwin.
He added that West Side Elementary in Kanawha County is another school within his 23-county Southern District of West Virginia that has this program. It began there last spring, and has had a few bumps in the road — mostly because it's hard to get information to schools between the time of an overnight crime and the first school bell.
It's been very well received, he said, adding that there's no cookie-cutter approach for this program and that the professionals in each school should cater it to their children's needs.
"This makes perfect sense," Holbrook said. "Law enforcement — we're not the solution to everything. If we don't collaborate and communicate, we're just chasing our tails. ... All of us have pieces to the solution."
The idea for the program was brought to him by Huntington resident Leon White, who learned about it about five years ago at a national Weed & Seed Conference. White said he remembers telling Holbrook about it.
"He promised to look into it, and he did," White said. "They've been painstaking in putting it together (here in West Virginia) to make sure that they got it right." On Thursday, the news of the program was shared with community organizations that serve children in areas from drug abuse prevention to dropout prevention and more. Stephanie Conley is program director at the Barnett Center, which works in tandem with HPD on programs focused on safety and the revitalization of the Fairfield community. She said she'd like to see it spread to all schools in the area.
"We have big dreams," she said. "We want to make a blanket of trauma care for Huntington and Cabell County." Starting with two schools will help work out glitches in the program first, officials said.
"This is common sense stuff, but this will get everyone thinking the same way to help these kids," Holbrook said. "I'll be very interested to see the return on investment we get in a few years, when these kids are adults."
Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com