School shooting the impetus for counseling program

GARDEN CITY—A  frightening incident at a Horry County school prompted the youth leader at St. Michael Church to put a special crisis-counseling program into action.

On Sept. 21, a 14-year-old student at Socastee High School was arrested for allegedly shooting at a police officer and bringing two pipe bombs to the campus. Students and teachers were evacuated to the football stadium. The officer, who received shrapnel wounds, was treated and released.

The student is currently being held at the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and is facing multiple charges.

Susan Starr, director of youth ministry at St. Michael, said many of the students in the church’s Life Teen program attend Socastee High.

The weekend after the incident, Starr invited a professional counselor, who wished to remain anonymous, to attend the regularly scheduled youth meeting and talk to the group about the incident and constructive ways of dealing with the aftermath.

“She talked to them about trauma, and about how these days it can seem that young people are desensitized to this kind of thing,” Starr said. “That was one of the things she and I both were concerned about. We wanted to try to provide them some support, to form a community of support where they could bring up some of the concerns they might have.”

About four years ago Starr worked with a group of volunteers to develop a program to help young people deal with trauma and violence.

She was inspired by a presentation given by Jim Beckman, a youth minister at St. Frances Cabrini Church in Littleton, Colo., when the shootings at Columbine High School took place in April 1999.

Thirteen students and one teacher were killed by two teenagers who then took their own lives. Three of the students who died were members of Beckman’s youth group.

Beckman stressed how important it is for youth leaders to have a plan to help young people handle trauma, such as a violent school incident or the death of a peer, Starr said.

“Since Columbine, unfortunately it’s been a commonplace thing that schools have to deal with students bringing in weapons and explosives,” she said. “We put this plan in place several years ago hoping we would never have to use it. After this thing happened, we felt like the students needed to have the opportunity to process this with somebody who is a professional, while it was still fresh in their minds.”

The counselor is also the main resource person for the church’s trauma response program. She hopes it can be effective in helping young people deal with other sources of stress, such as violence outside school or even stress caused by a natural disaster, such as a hurricane.

She discussed the shooting with students, and told them about the effects of trauma and the warning signs that someone is having a delayed reaction to extreme stress.

Starr said the teens responded well, and it seemed especially helpful to the younger ones who had just started high school. Several youth stayed after the meeting to have one-on-one discussions with the counselor.

The session gave Lori Pimental, 16, new insights into how to handle a crisis.

The Socastee junior said she has been attending activities at St. Michael for most of her life and is an active member of Life Teen. 

“We discussed the different emotions that can go through people’s heads, and how small a mindset they can have when they think the way the young man at Socastee did,” she said. “We talked about the different situations that could have happened at the school with the suspicious explosives that were found, and how things could have been a lot worse.”

Pimental remembered how friends from other schools sent her text messages during the incident to make sure she was all right. That led to a discussion on how quickly information spreads and how trauma can even impact those far away from an incident.