By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Virtually every summer, Sea Isle City’s Police Department receives calls from frantic parents to help them find their children who have wandered away on the crowded beaches.
But once the kids are found, police may face the challenge of calming the children down to get enough information from them so they can be reunited with their families.
That can be even more difficult if the child has a developmental disorder such as autism or is simply too scared to talk with police.
But starting this month, Sea Isle police officers will receive training from a special education teacher for a new program that will help them interact with children and adults who may have sensory or developmental disorders.
“We can train them to spot people with the characteristics of a disability,” said Kelly Walsh, who teaches special education in the Hempfield School District in Lancaster, Pa.
Walsh has longtime ties to Sea Isle and spends her summer vacations at the beach community. Her sister, Maureen Conte, is married to Lt. Steve Conte of the Sea Isle police department.
Steve and Maureen Conte will play an important role in the new program by donating “sensory go bags” that are filled with items to help police officers communicate with children or adults who may have a disorder or are frightened.
Walsh brought the idea of having a sensory program for the Sea Isle police department to her brother-in-law and received his support.
“It’s been a team effort,” she said of the involvement of Steve and Maureen Conte as well as Capt. Anthony Garreffi, the officer in charge of Sea Isle’s police department.
Police officers will carry the sensory bags in their patrol vehicles. The bags will include whiteboards and markers, sunglasses, noise-canceling headphones, stress balls, “fidgets” such as small toys, bubbles, visual aids and soft stuffed animals.
Walsh explained that the sunglasses, for instance, would be helpful for someone who is extra sensitive to light. The headphones would help children or adults who might have sensitivity to loud noises, such as emergency sirens.
“It helps them to focus, and in the event of an emergency, they can answer questions better,” Walsh said of the calming effect the items in the sensory bags will have on children or adults when they are interacting with police.
She noted that police must quickly build a rapport with children who are separated from their parents on the beach or are involved in an accident or another type of emergency. That’s where the sensory bags come in.
“If they have items in the sensory go bags, they can quickly respond to an individual. It helps the first responders to make the connection and make a response,” Walsh said in an interview Friday.
She believes the new program will be particularly helpful for police officers dealing with children or adults who suffer from “sensory processing disorder,” a physiological condition that affects how their central nervous system processes input from their senses.
“One in six adults, teenagers and children has sensory processing disorder,” Walsh said.
Children or adults who may be deaf or blind or suffer from mental disorders such Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder could also benefit from the sensory program, she added.
Walsh plans to begin Zoom training sessions with police officers this month and have the program ready to go in September. Her hope is to expand it to Sea Isle’s firefighters and emergency medical technicians.
Walsh unveiled the sensory bags on Aug. 2 during Sea Isle’s National Night Out celebration, an event that strengthens ties between police officers, firefighters and other first responders with the local community.
Adults and children had a positive reaction to the sensory bags during National Night Out. Some of them said they know people who could be helped by the bags, Walsh said.
Other police departments, school districts and businesses around the country have similar, successful programs using sensory bags, she pointed out.
“This is a great way that Sea Isle can have a dialogue, move forward and be sensory inclusive,” she said.