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Handle with Care helps students facing crisis

ESCANABA — There are days in life you feel ‘off,’, nothing works the way you want, or think it should. Then there are days you find yourself unable to concentrate on the task at hand. Why? Maybe you’re tired, don’t feel well, or something else is going on in your life and you cannot stop thinking about it. It’s hard to work.

Students in school can have the same barriers and be unable to get past them, making it hard to concentrate and learn in school. The student may act out in class and disrupt the teacher, or become withdrawn and not focus on things they normally would, or in severe cases, become violent.

Alycia Chernick, Webster Kindergarten Center’s behavioral interventionalist, and Jerry Plourde, Escanaba Upper Elementary’s at-risk coordinator, are heading up a new program in the Escanaba Area Public Schools called Handle with Care. They were taught the program and are training other professionals in the school district the techniques.

Chernick is on the trauma section of the local Mental Health Task Force, which ties with the program.

“How do we passively work with public safety so that if there is a crisis at a family home stop, do they report it to somebody in the school? Obviously it would be very private, maybe they would just say, we had to visit this home, handle the child with care,” said Chernick. “We wouldn’t get any of the private information, but it’s for the staff members to know the student is going to come in not ready to learn.”

Chernick continued to say the program is not up to that stage yet, they still need to be trauma informed.

The Handle with Care program teaches how to look for signs of stress in students like fidgeting, pacing, make noises, or being withdrawn. These are all early signs a student shows when becoming stressed. Chernick and Plourde have learned ways to possibly circumvent problems and work through them with the student before the situation grows into something that is a huge problem.

“Where they’re throwing a desk or they’re yelling and angry. Because those are some things we see in all levels, from kindergarden through high school,” Chernick said. “We … address these kids and try to help them to have some coping skills before they snowball into something where it becomes a crisis.”

The basis of the program is building relationships.

“Connection equals cooperation,” said Chernick.

The founder of the program, Bruce Chapman, created the program in 1984, after working at the locked psychiatric unit of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. Chapman was the hospital’s authority on prevention and management of aggression and suicide. The program is designed to train professionals on safely managing behaviorally challenged children and adults, including those with disruptive, aggressive and self-destructive behaviors.

Escanaba previously used a program called Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI), another Nonviolent Crisis Intervention program. According to Chernick, the district decided to go a different way.

“We shifted to the Handle with Care. The whole first day of the training … is de-escalation strategies … only in the case of a child becoming self-injurious, or injurious to staff (would passive force be used),” said Chernick.

“Handle with Care is to prevent physical altercations and solve problems with verbal interventions,” said Plourde. “But with the physical restraint techniques … therefore are used as a tool in a safe manner.”

So far, Assistant High School Principal Jason Micheau, Plourde, a handful of elementary administrators and K-6 teacher aids have had the training. They will continue to roll it out through the district.

This is Chernick and Plourde’s first year in their positions, so they cannot say there have been more incidences with students than last year, but Plourde knows it was busy last year with interventions.

“For the most part they’re verbal interventions,” said Plourde. “Sit downs and interviews.”

Behavioral plans are made for students struggling in school to help them in class or get them back into school.

“It’s a wonderful program that really helps put the focus on keeping potential conflicts from escalating,” said Micheau. “In the event that things do escalate, the training and techniques of Handle with Care help to keep students and staff safe from injury.”

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