Montana’s House Education Committee on Monday considered a bill allowing local school officials to establish “Handle with Care” programs to unobtrusively identify students dealing with trauma. 

The sponsor of House Bill 27, Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, summed up the measure as offering “a little TLC” to children in grades K-12 who have experienced traumatic events outside of school hours. Those events, she said, could include anything from a fight between parents witnessed by a student to a grandparent being taken from the house in an ambulance late at night.

“As we learn more and more about the lasting effects that children of trauma experience, we try whatever means we can to mitigate the trauma,” Funk said. “One of the easiest tools that has shown success in communities across our country and here in Montana is Handle with Care.”

In recent years, Handle with Care programs have been adopted throughout the country. West Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland have implemented the model statewide, as have individual school districts in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Antonio, Texas. In Montana, schools in Power, Polson and Shelby have similar practices in place.

The gist of Handle with Care, as outlined by Funk, is to allow law enforcement or emergency services personnel to alert an appointed school representative that a particular child may be experiencing trauma. That alert, Funk stressed, would not offer any details about the traumatic event, but would instead simply state the student’s name and the phrase “handle with care.” Teachers and other school staff can then have a clearer understanding of why that student may exhibit unusual behavior and offer support. Under HB 27, Handle with Care programs are strictly optional for individual districts in Montana.

Members of the committee questioned Funk at length about details of the program, including the nature of the notifications and whether and how parents would be informed of its availability. HB 27 contains no funding allocation, Funk said, so there would be no money for public service announcements offering public education about the program. Funk also said the bill is not designed to help students involved in incidents such as child abuse that are reported to Child and Family Services at the Department of Public Health and Human Services. Those incidents would still be handled by the appropriate authorities, Funk said.

“House Bill 27 simply gives the community the parameters within which it can work,” Funk added.

Several groups stood in favor of the measure, among them the Montana School Boards Association, the School Administrators of Montana and the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Rebecca Hargis, a retired child and family therapist and chair of the Helena chapter of Elevate Montana, said the legislation would offer schools a simple and locally tailored tool to address the impacts of trauma on children.

“This is a prevention that goes a long way to helping kids from the minute they get to school in the morning and to help them through their day without it being a question-and-answer period for them,” Hargis said. “It’s just about helping kids and making connections with kids.”

Monday was the first hearing on HB 27, and lawmakers did not take any action on the measure following discussion. The House Education Committee is slated to meet next on Wednesday, Jan. 13, at 3 p.m.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.