MUSC helps in aftermath of school violence through partnership with district

October 03, 2023
Series of blue lockers with silver locks. The picture focuses on the turn between two lines, which sit in an L shape.
Photo illustration of school lockers. Photo by Sarah Pack

When news broke about a stabbing at Stall High School in North Charleston, clinical social worker Jordan Downey felt a personal pull. “I just needed to make sure that everybody was OK.”

Downey knows a lot of students and staff at Stall, where she offers trauma treatment two days a week. The fact that there’s a regular need for that kind of treatment says a lot about what some students are dealing with these days. It also shows how important supporting them after a crisis, such as an act of violence, can be.

“I just felt instant concern for the kiddos that I know and then also the staff members because I know how much they love those kids. The school community is really tightknit for such a large student body,” Downey said.

Downey has become part of that community through a partnership between the Medical University of South Carolina and the Charleston County School District. It’s funded by a $1 million grant from the Boeing Company through the MUSC Health Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness and a matching contribution from the school district. 

MUSC, which is home to both the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center and the National Mass Violence Victimization Resource Center, has a team of experts specializing in helping people of all ages cope with traumatic incidents.

That includes Downey. With funding from the Boeing grant, she offers trauma treatment to students at Stall two days a week and kids at another Charleston County school, Zucker Middle School, as well. The grant also helps fund a different MUSC mental health expert’s work at West Ashley High School and Camp Road Middle School.

Because of that relationship between MUSC and Charleston County, several mental health experts from MUSC were able to join Downey quickly on-site to help Stall High School recover. School district specialists well-versed in crisis intervention led the effort, along with representatives of the state Department of Mental Health and Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy. They all knew that although police made an arrest in the stabbing that didn’t mean everyone at the school automatically felt safe again. 

Fronde Stille directs School Counseling Services with the Department of Student Support Services for the Charleston County School District. “We have a district crisis response to help schools problem-solve around what their needs are,” she said.

It’s based on curriculum developed by the National Association of School Psychologists. Lisa Allison, executive director of Student Support Services, said it’s called called PREPaRE.

That stands for:

  • Prevent and prepare for crises.
  • Reaffirm physical health and welfare and perceptions of safety and security.
  • Evaluate psychological trauma risk.
  • Provide interventions.
  • and
  • Respond to mental health needs.
  • Examine the effectiveness of crisis preparedness.

“We have multiple student support staff and others in schools who are trained on that PREPaRE curriculum and model. We serve to help support them in their efforts to support their schools,” Allison said.

They also rely on specialists from MUSC and elsewhere to help, Stille said. “Even if you think about expertise, schools work within their scope of practice, and sometimes students' needs are beyond our scope. And so partnerships like this are paramount.”

The work of Meg Wallace, an MUSC social worker and associate director for Clinical Operations at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, helps illustrate that. “The district reached out to us Monday afternoon after the [Sept. 25] incident and asked if we'd be available to help respond,” Wallace said. 

“So we came out focused mainly on checking with the educators and staff and logistics planning for bringing students back to campus. And then the next day was mainly focused on helping students acclimate to being back on campus and providing some crisis support for any students who needed it.”

That crisis support is ongoing. Stille said it's sensitive work. “First, we try to make sure they feel like they're physically safe to be in the space. Then we address psychological safety so that they feel like they can engage in the reason that they're here, which is, of course, academics. Obviously, for students who have experienced other traumas, just knowing that they're in the same building where something like that happened can have those trauma triggers.”

So that’s why it’s important for the district’s response to be tailored to students’ needs, Allison said. Previous trauma isn’t the only consideration.

“There are some students who were very close to the event. You could have a different experience based on your physical proximity and/or your emotional proximity. Your best friend might be of a victim, for example, or you were right next to the event and saw it.  So the both of those are very proximal. So we want to make sure that the intervention is more intensive.”

Whatever a student’s experience, Downey, the clinical social worker from MUSC, said it’s important to help as soon as possible. “A lot of it is talking about how they're coping with things and seeing how we can move them forward toward recovery so that it doesn't become something that requires treatment later.”

Wallace described what coping can look like. “A lot feels out of control for people in these situations, for parents and for students and staff. And so helping them figure out what are the things that we have control over and helping students and staff and parents to know that and be able to sit with them. You know, sometimes it's just having someone who can sit with you when you feel emotions,” she said.

“Our job is not really to change how the kids feel or the staff or students feel. It's more to allow them a space to sit with the emotions that they're feeling, whatever they are. Help them recognize that whatever reaction they're having is totally normal in these situations. And just letting them process it. Our goal is really to help families not feel like they have to be OK after these things or have to shove down feelings. It's important to be able to just feel it.”

Allison said the district’s connection with MUSC isn’t isolated to crisis response. “The footprint here in CCSD is a large one, and we're appreciative of all the supports across all the schools. And then, when you see it localized and intensified for a school in significant need, you can see how it all can all come together in a way that is necessary for our kids. And we're just appreciative of that.”

Downey was appreciative of the chance to help. She had this takeaway from the incident at Stall. “This was obviously not something that anybody would ever want to have happen, but remembering that with the right support, this is a community. The school serves so many different communities that are incredibly resilient and incredibly capable, and the supports that the school is seeking out are absolutely on the right track to give students what they need.”