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'Handle with care' bill seeks to aid students in crisis

'Handle with care' bill seeks to aid students in crisis

School Resource Officer Andrew Barton

Capital High students move from class to class around School Resource Officer Andrew Barton in this file photo from 2019.

The House Education committee on Monday heard a proposal that could help teachers provide some relief to children who are dealing with crisis at home.

The "Handle with Care" program is already in place in a number of school districts, like those in Polson and Shelby, said Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena. If a child is present when police respond to a home, whether it's for a grandparent who needs to be rushed to a hospital or conflict between the parents, an officer can then send a brief text to a designated school official.

The text message, due to privacy limitations, would simply include the child's name and the phrase "Handle with care." Teachers then know, from the text, the extra context to consider if that child is acting out or appears tired, and can offer support as needed. 

House Bill 27, sponsored by Funk, would authorize school districts across the state to implement their own version of the "Handle with Care" program. Local school boards would create and implement their own program, in which the board enters into an agreement with law enforcement or emergency services. In practice, a first responder would simply text a school official.

"In some communities, this is a small thing that can make a big difference in a child's life," Funk told the committee Monday. 

The program would adjust nothing in relation to the state's Child Protective Services Division; if the child is in harm's way, CPS will still get involved, Funk said.

Likewise, Funk said there should be no privacy concerns or liabilities from the program if the text message is limited entirely to the child's name and the phrase, which serves as a blanket communication that an adverse experience took place within the last 24 hours. 

Matt Kuntz, executive director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Montana, said it would allow schools to provide some shelter from trouble at home.

"It's a simple way to let the school know something difficult happened in this kid's life last night," Kuntz said in testimony in support of HB 27. "It doesn't have to impact every part of their life."

Daniel Farr, a lobbyist for 17 schools in northeast rural Montana, testified Monday in support of the bill, noting resources for intervention on such matters are sometimes scant in far-flung school districts, and called HB 27 "an absolute plus for serving the children of eastern Montana."

Committee Chair Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, asked Funk how parents would know the school has been notified that their child may need to be handled with care. The proposed legislation does not mention parents, but said school districts could determine how to notify parents of the process. 

The House Education Committee did not take immediate action on the bill and meets again Wednesday at 3 p.m.

Montana State News Bureau

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