The Park Rapids School Board heard a report on Monday about the Handle with Care program, part of the community’s ongoing goal to address adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

Grant coordinator Angela Graham with CHI St. Joseph’s Health joined three other members of Park Rapids’ ACEs MN coalition to report about the program. Joining her were Alternative Learning Center coordinator Lisa Coborn, Mark Andersen with Northwoods Bank and high school Coordinator of Educational Services Shelli Walsh.

Graham explained that Handle with Care aims to ensure that children exposed to crime, violence or abuse receive appropriate interventions to succeed in school to the best of their ability. She said research shows that trauma affects children’s ability to learn, form relationships and function in the classroom.

A similar program exists in other states and in Duluth, the group said.

According to CDC data, ACEs may include sexual, emotional or physical abuse; emotional or physical neglect; living in a household with someone who suffers from mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse or divorce; or having an incarcerated relative. Each experience counts as one ACE on a 10-point scale.

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“The COVID-19 pandemic may be amplifying some ACEs that we have in our community,” said Graham, citing such factors as social isolation, job loss, school closures, food and housing insecurity and other related stressors.

According to a 2019 survey of Park Rapids eighth, ninth and 11th graders, she said, about 31 percent reported two or more ACEs, compared to the statewide average of 24 percent. More than half reported one or more ACEs.

Graham said that throughout Hubbard County, youth in those grades with an ACEs score of three or more were over 2-1/2 times more likely to report using alcohol within the past month; over three times more likely to vape; over eight times more likely to use marijuana; 10 times more likely to report symptoms of depression within the past week; and eight times more likely to report anxiety symptoms.

She said these risks decreased among students who reported feeling that their teachers care about them, listen to them and treat them fairly. “If we have a caring adult in our kids’ lives, then the risky behaviors that they do decrease,” said Graham.

Chronic activation of stress hormones impedes normal brain development, complex thought and learning, she said, adding that kids who feel unsafe are more likely to participate in high-risk behaviors like smoking, substance abuse, skipping school and crime.

Coborn and Walsh said Handle with Care provides a structure linking school staff with law enforcement and health services, to provide support when a traumatic event occurs with the goal to keep kids in school. They explained that this communication is confidential and limited to staff members who have access to the affected student.

Walsh called Handle with Care a part of being a trauma-sensitive school, and said the program includes free staff training tools. She described some of the possible interventions, such as giving a student an extension on their homework or a quiet place to take a test.

Coborn said the program doesn’t put any additional responsibility on staff, but helps them spot issues they may want to refer to other staff members like Walsh or the principals.

Walsh explained how this works, saying that law enforcement would send an email alert to an address visible only to the principals and herself, for example, if an ACE happened overnight at the student’s home. They could then put an icon next to the affected student’s name in the student information system, similar to an allergy alert or a hybrid learning group number.

Coborn and Walsh stressed that this notification does not include private information about the situation the student is experiencing. “It’s a ‘handle with care,’ it’s not saying exactly what happened,” said Coborn.

Graham said they are hoping to implement the program in all three schools in Hubbard County and help it spread from there. She said local law enforcement and County Attorney Jonathan Frieden are on board with it.

She said the committee had four requests of the school board: support for the program in general; the use of some staff development time during the fall to inform school staff about it; setting up a means for law enforcement to report ACEs to the school, such as an easy-to-remember, dedicated email address; and outreach to inform the community about the program and its benefits.

Superintendent Lance Bagstad cautioned that the school already has a program called Handle with Care, connected with special education.