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New police, school partnership helps Duluth kids dealing with trauma

In her time as an early-childhood educator, Becky Gamache has worked with families experiencing trauma.

One incident in particular last year — in which a troubled mother told her about the domestic abuse she had suffered that morning, and that her children witnessed — set Gamache thinking about how schools should be notified by police when a child has been exposed to trauma. She stumbled onto an online story that laid out a program police and schools were using in Arkansas that relied on an email system. And then she reached out to Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken. From that, a new effort between Duluth police and the Duluth school district was formed.

Kids exposed to a traumatic incident often come to school the next day and may be upset or exhausted, and may act out in unusual ways, Gamache said.

"When I talked to (Superintendent Bill Gronseth about the idea), I said, 'these kids just need some extra love,' " she said.

Handle with care

If police handle an incident in which Duluth school district children have been involved and are possibly traumatized, they will send a "handle with care" email to Duluth's assistant superintendent's office, where three people will see it. The email includes only the name of the student and that the student was exposed to something potentially traumatizing.

Legally, police cannot say what it was, said Sgt. Mike LaFontaine, who works in the juvenile bureau of the police department and oversees Duluth's school resource officers. If the incident is high profile, police might not be able to send an email, because the privacy of kids needs to be protected, he said.

But otherwise, "a little bit of information at 9 a.m. might prevent something from happening at noon," LaFontaine said, if a child acts out from the stress, for example.

Once district administration is notified, the principal of the school the child attends gets the message, and those directly involved with the student receive the news, along with training on how to deal with it. Staff are not allowed to question the child, said district climate coordinator Ron Lake, but are told so they are aware and can keep an eye out for visual cues — like if a child is exhausted or clearly upset — that show they might need attention.

"You would say, 'Hey, you look extra sleepy today. Would it help to go lie down?' " Lake said. "It's an awareness to attend to any behavioral cues, and then they can support those."

Educators want to "meet kids where they are at," he said, and help however they can if there are needs preventing kids from learning.

Police might send an email to the district for a variety of reasons, LaFontaine said. Witnessing a car accident, a heart attack, an overdose or an assault, whether it involves family or not, are all reasons to notify the district.

St. Louis County, the city attorney, First Witness Child Advocacy Center and Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault were all consulted for the setup of the new program.

First Witness family advocate Ina Newton said they wanted to ensure the privacy of families was respected, and that staff were sensitive to the needs of kids.

"We're excited to see feedback and if (the program does) positively impact families," she said.

Gamache, who teaches in the district's preschool programs, hopes other area districts and police departments adopt the idea.

The concept is about supporting kids so they can develop resiliency, she said, "because we're not always in control of what's happening at home."