BUCKHANNON – On Thursday, Upshur County School administration, teachers and staff gathered at Buckhannon-Upshur County High School for a conference called “Handle with Care.”
The purpose of the conference was to provide training for Upshur County Schools staff and community support team members about the impact trauma can have on learning.
Upshur County is the first county in West Virginia to host the “Handle with Care” conference at this level, according to administration officials. Jodie Akers, director of student services, said Thursday’s training took about a year of preparation.
“We have been working with the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice,” Akers said. “They were instrumental in helping us get this set up. They have the ‘Handle with Care’ conferences in Charleston, and they are trying to spread this to different sections.”
Akers said there were more than 15 exhibitors set up to allow Upshur County Schools staff to learn about services available in the area for children and families.
“There are 20 breakout sessions focused on children and self-care, focusing on trauma,” Akers said, adding she hopes everyone really understands the trauma-responsive piece.
“It’s about the whole child and working with them in a different manner,” Akers said. “We are really excited for this.”
The idea for hosting the “Handle with Care” Conference stems from some of the community discussions.
“We felt this would just merge together very nicely with our staff,” Akers said.
Andrea Darr, director of the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice, said Thursday’s event was designed to help children learn regardless of their home situation.
“A lot of children come to school traumatized,” Darr said. “We need to create situations where all kids are safe so they can learn. The drug epidemic has just fueled this crisis, and it is so prevalent.”
Darr said 60 percent of kids have been exposed to crime, abuse and violence, and 40 percent have been exposed to two or more violent acts.
“It’s an epidemic that must be dealt with,” Darr said. “So, we created a program to address this and it doesn’t work if everyone is not on board. Upshur County is the first county in the state to get everyone together in one place – teachers, bus drivers, cooks, custodians, principals – it is everyone. They have to understand what this is and change this, add a lot of empathy and connect with these children. We are losing a generation. We have to do this – it’s not an option.”
Special Education Director Melinda Stewart said the training is imperative to helping staff effectively perform their jobs.
“The students that are coming to us are living in a very different world than the one we grew up in,” she said. “They are coming to school with a whole lot of baggage. So, we are trying to educate our staff how to deal with those students in the classrooms, so they can be successful and achieve what they need to achieve.”
Stewart said she feels in the past, teachers and staff have not been aware of what issues the students were facing outside of the classrooms that have an impact on them while in school.
“That prevented us from meeting their needs,” Stewart said.
School Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus said the energy among the employees at the conference was amazing.
“Going back to school is so terrific, and it’s great to see our people,” Stankus said. “It’s an important day to learn about what we can do for kids who have experienced trauma. It’s good to have so many community folks here as well – they are helping to build the bridges and strengthen the services for our kids. We are really excited about that.”
Assistant Superintendent Dr. Debra Harrison said Thursday’s gathering brought together resources from across the state.
“They have worked so hard to bring all of these resources together,” Harrison said. “They have been working on this for over a year – it matches our trauma-responsive approach and helps us meet the needs of our students so they can focus on academics in the classroom. It’s all about learning everything we can to remove obstacles from our student’s lives to allow them to be able to learn. The students – that’s what it is all about.”
BOE President Dr. Tammy Samples said she was happy to see so many employees gathered for the training.
“It’s a required training but will be a way for us to address the trauma so many of our students are experiencing,” Samples said. “Before children are five years old, they will often face five traumatic experiences. If they are in that place, they are not going to learn.”
Samples said they need to find out where the children are at emotionally and psychologically so they can get on the academic path.
“The kids we teach today are so different from those we taught 10 years ago,” Samples said.
Upshur County Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts presented the colors and led the Pledge of Allegiance while the choir performed the National Anthem at the start of the conference.
Sponsors for “Handle with Care” include Weyerheuser, Salem University, HandleWithCareWV.org, Community Care of West Virginia and Glenville State College.