Skip to main content.

Despite money and research, problems persist for South Carolina's at-risk youth

Fellowship Story Showcase

Despite money and research, problems persist for South Carolina's at-risk youth

Picture of Issac Bailey

This story was produced as a project for the 2019 National Fellowship.

Jimmy McCullough, principal of Horry County Education Center, talks to students leaving the alternative school.
Jimmy McCullough, principal of Horry County Education Center, talks to students leaving the alternative school.
(Photo by Janet Morgan/
Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Issac Bailey, a veteran journalist, once helped mentor Jerome Jenkins while volunteering at the Horry County Education Center, also known as the “alternative school.” Jenkins pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder several years later, but is appealing the case as he sits on death row. Bailey was called to testify during the sentencing phase of Jenkins’s death penalty trial in 2019. Jenkins and his family declined to be interviewed for this story. This story was produced through a grant from the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. 

Jimmy McCullough will never forget where he was during a period of rising anxiety in the western part of Horry County in 2015. Nearly 80 burglaries had occurred over several weeks. They had largely gone unsolved, generating unnerving headlines. That period included the murders of two convenience store clerks, including one at a Sunhouse on Oak Street not far from Conway High School, where McCullough was an administrator. 

The violence, combined with uncertainty about stopping it, led to sleepless nights for residents and discussions about what could be done to prevent more. There were prayer chains, silent marches and rallies in parks, and handwringing among community activists and others frustrated that efforts to curb such things seemed not to have taken hold. Horry County Council established a subcommittee to devise a plan to deal with it.

“At Conway, I heard a great deal about it, because everyone was nervous,” McCullough said. “At the time, these were random acts of violence that could happened anywhere. The students were nervous because the Sunhouse was in the communities that they lived. 

Teachers were afraid because these were the stores that they used. Of course, as administrators we were worried because we knew the impact it would have on the kids.”

That McCullough won’t forget that series of events doesn’t make him unique. What makes him stand out is that he is now principal of the Horry County Education Center, the so-called “alternative school.” It’s the kind of place McCullough himself was nearly sent as a high schooler after he got into an ugly fight – and it is the school where Jerome Jenkins, one of the young men convicted of murder and attempted murder during that crime spree, spent time after a history of disruptive behavior.

That’s why McCullough knows better than most the thin reed separating his life as a professional, whose job it is to help steer at-risk children onto a better path, and Jenkins’ life of sitting on death row waiting for his case to be appealed.

How can Horry County get to a place of predicting and preventing the next Jenkins? Research rains down from the U.S. government and such institutions as Harvard, Yale, New York University, Brown University, Ohio State University and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It ticks off reasons for the kind of behavior Jenkins and others like him exhibit, offering a better understanding of and potential solutions for one of society’s most vexing problems. But not even those scientific advances provide guarantees.

Before he was born, Jenkins’ mother had abnormal weight gain and high blood pressure, which may have affected his early development. His father was in prison during his formative years. He had temper tantrums, weight problems and difficulty making friends or forming relationships with teachers. He began seeing a therapist before he was 10 and struggled with suicidal thoughts, documents show, reflecting his time at Green-Sea Floyds Elementary School.

A young Jerome saw his closest cousin murdered.

By high school, he had been sent to the alternative school multiple times. While enrolled there, he was arrested selling drugs and did not graduate.

Investigators for his defense attorneys said two older members of area gangs “Folk Nation” and “Insane Gangster Disciples” heavily influenced Jenkins’s actions in 2015 during their crime spree.

“He had an emotional disability from the fourth grade on,” said Lindsey Vann, an attorney with Justice 360, a nonprofit specializing in reforming the capital punishment and juvenile justice systems, who helped Jenkins’s defense team during his death penalty trial and sentencing. “He got no real treatment for his emotional disorder.”

Psychiatrist Donna Maddox testified Jenkins suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and his brain was less developed than the typical 20-year-old because of his early experiences.

Tallying the number of people killed and the number of robberies may force communities throughout the Grand Strand to look for immediate answers. But there are no quick or easy solutions on how best to corral the effects of violence and toxic stress on young, developing bodies and brains. There are also unseen ripple effects from such violence in the form of undiagnosed mental health problems that may be lethal over the course of a lifetime. 

Even the kids who successfully hurdle the challenges take scars with them into adulthood that affect their long-term health.

Not even researchers at Harvard University, where the term “toxic stress” was coined, have clear answers. Neuroscientists and researchers know that such stress can literally reshape the contours of a child’s brain, causing disruptions in brain processes that control our ability to delay gratification, sit still, focus and understand the potential consequences of actions. It can increase a child’s anxiety and alter his mood and make it seem like rambunctious or willful misbehavior. But such behavior might be a result of a child’s brain not being able to distinguish between threatening and non-threatening situations, between a teacher’s smile and a teacher’s scowl. A child could mistakenly believe an adult is about to attack even when that adult is just trying to give a warm hug.

“It’s still correlation,” Charles Nelson, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, said. “We can’t know for sure it is toxic stress causing individual abnormal behavior.”

Neither is the science clear on why one child growing up in challenging circumstances becomes successful later in life, while another falters. Genetic variance affects resilience, Nelson said, making it easier for one child to repel the effects of adverse circumstances while another absorbs them.

In addition to that, maternal stress, perceived stress and stressful life events are connected to a slowdown of a baby’s brain activity beginning at the age of two months and fewer vocalizations at six months. The stresses of growing up in extreme poverty can have more devastating effects on a child than physical brain injuries, the Harvard neuroscientist said. 

None of this means a child who grows up in tough circumstances is doomed.

Brain processes grow at their most rapid pace during the first two or three years of life. But the brain experiences another rapid growth period during the teen and young adult years, which is why well-done and well-focused intervention programs in those years can steer children deemed “at-risk” in a positive direction.

“It’s best to deal with abnormal behavior that shows up in preschool,” Nelson said. “If we don’t invest early, we are going to pay later, and it’s going to be a lot more expensive.”

Another complication is that removing young children from their homes, unless they are unsafe, can also lead to adverse effects. Children can thrive even in struggling, poverty-stricken homes if provided with the right outside intervention, such as building parenting skills, identifying employment options for the adults in the household and making counseling available to everyone. Social workers often face this dilemma. The mental health and other local resources they know a struggling child needs are in short supply, and they often feel pressured by the public to take drastic actions – like home-removal – in the wake of high-profile crimes.

Alternative School

The alternative school is where middle and high school students with a variety of behavioral and other issues are sent for various amounts of time, based on the severity of their misdeeds or needs.

Under McCullough, who has been principal for three years, students at the school are divided into three tiers. Tier 1 is for students whose misbehavior is considered the least serious. Most students are funneled into Tier 2, essentially the moderate category. Tier 3 is reserved for the relatively small number of students facing allegations that might trigger criminal charges or fall just below that threshold but are deemed serious enough that they are essentially cordoned off from other students.

Jenkins attended the school before the tier system was established.

The tier system is designed as a restorative rather than punitive approach, heavy on impressing upon students with the importance of personal responsibility. The four pillars of the program — honesty, character, empowerment and courage — are repeated by the student and staff as well as on posters placed around the school.

“We focus on social emotional learning through our advisory classes every day, school wide,” said Kathleen Smith, the school’s behavioral expert. “Every student at HCEC receives counseling of some sort while in attendance.”

The school employs two guidance counselors, two behavior interventionists and three counselors. It partners with Shoreline Behavioral Health and counselors at base schools. The students practice yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices. All of the programs at the school are designed to SOAR (Shine On After Return) the students back to their base schools and pave the way for their success.  

 “The quickest and most immediate feedback comes from witnessing a student de-escalate,” Smith said, “watching a student … advocate for themselves, seeing their smile, hearing them identify the lessons they have learned.”

To SOAR from the school, students are required to earn points. The weekly SOAR program is similar to a graduation ceremony held every Friday with students, school staff, parents and guardians participating, celebrating and listening to the students’ presentations of what they have learned during their time at the school.

From day one, students can begin collecting points by arriving to school on time without incident, hitting deadlines for academic assignments, completing homework, avoiding discipline problems during a school day, community service and adhering to the dress code.

A Tier 1 student needs 80 points to SOAR while a Tier 3 student needs more than four times that. Based on their assigned tiers, a student can spend as little as three weeks in the alternative school or more than 10. They can lose points based on their behavior that could prolong their stay. And the base school administrators can send the student back to start at zero if a problem emerges. Smith said such returns have decreased since the tier program was implemented.

A Tier 3 student can’t return to his base school until after any criminal charges have been resolved.

During a weekly intake session for new students in mid-October, Assistant Principal Eric Caputo reminded students and their parents that HCEC officials had no say in who got sent to the school. Their previous bad deeds would not be the focus nor held against them, he said. The point is to ready them for a return to their base schools, not to judge them for things that have already occurred.

On that day, at least eight black students and three white students made their way through the metal detector to the common area for the session with Caputo. There were mothers but no fathers attending the session that day.

“I hate to see you under these conditions,” McCullough told the in-take crowd.

McCullough described the school as “the ultimate melting pot” because there are students with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, sexual assault survivors and some who have committed violent acts blended with others who have seemingly minor issues. Over the past year, McCullough has noticed an uptick in kids with drug problems, evidence of the opioid crisis that has affected much of the country.

Though officials at the school couldn’t say for certain, many of the students at the school had little to no sustained mental health intervention before arriving. South Carolina children are facing other issues that affect their behavior such as nearly a quarter living in poverty, 10% are born with a low birth weight and 40% are growing up with single-parent families. There are 33 child and teen deaths per 100,000 in South Carolina, all above the national average of 26 per 100,000. 

“Parents say, ‘He just bad’ even though the kid has mental health problems, so it’s hard to get over that stigma, because a kid can be highly functional but still have these problems,” McCullough said. “That’s our burden, man. We get it all. I don’t know if we have the answer for it all.”

McCullough knows what it’s like to be labeled an at-risk teen.

More than two decades ago, he was a junior at Loris High School and severely injured a fellow student during a fight. He got lucky by being put on probation instead of a criminal record that could have changed the trajectory of his life. He expressed remorse and became determined to use football to help him get out of Loris. He had numerous people — family members, friends and coaches — who stepped in to steer him in a positive direction after the fight.

Research has shown that early, consistent intervention by a positive adult in a child’s life may improve a child’s prospects for success.

“I started hanging with a group of guys who were great kids in school,” McCullough said. “All of them are very successful now. I guess some of the good vibes rubbed off on me, and I took the route of being a leader.  I had great people in my life that all chipped in to help mold me.”

That’s why he’s hoping to mold the most troubled kids who end up in his office waiting to hear their tier assignment. That’s why it cuts deep when he hears about a kid he knew from HCEC who later ends up at J. Reuben Long Detention Center like Jenkins.

“When they make decisions that land them at an alternative school, I try to fully explain that one day the punishment will not be the alternative school, but prison,” he said. “My pain comes from the amount of lives that get changed because of one or two bad decisions.”

Being at the alternative school amounts to a kind of scarlet letter for some students. Local activists say the school system too often dishes out overly harsh and haphazard punishment to students, particularly young black men. Parents struggle when deciding whether their child would be better off home-schooled after an expulsion.

Activists such as Tim McCray and Bennie Swans have pushed for grief counseling in neighborhoods that experience shootings and other forms of violence. And Horry County Schools, like other districts, has been making such counseling more readily available. 

Often, though, intervention comes in the form of suspensions, expulsions and transfers to the alternative school after a student’s misbehavior has become too disruptive or harmful. In other instances, as with a spate of suicides that rocked the Waccamaw Neck area in recent years, the violence manifests itself as self-harm, leaving families to cope in silence and perceived shame.

“Most of our problems are coming from how we are treated in our early childhood. Many of the major problems are anxiety based,” said Jim Rogers, a longtime certified parenting specialist in Horry County who frequently works with the S.C. Department of Social Services and other organizations. “Our young people are being tossed aside. We are waiting for them to get into trouble before we intervene.”

Rogers laments what he says was a mistake South Carolina made 25 years ago. About 350 specialists were trained to help improve parenting and other skills for struggling families. The goal was to send those who went through the training into the community to prevent violence and bad outcomes for children, and to fund the program through Medicaid, the way other states had. But the program was scrapped because it wasn’t “medically important.” 

Another example of prevention attempts that were abandoned prematurely was the effort by an Horry County Council subcommittee to research what causes the cycles of violence, particularly after the crime spree that sent Jenkins to death row. 

The five-prong approach from the subcommittee included establishing family resource centers to focus on prevention and training parents along with their children. Local law enforcement agencies have partnered with federal agencies to reduce crime in ways the subcommittee recommended and homicides in the county dropped from 22 in 2018 to 10 last year, though killings have emerged as a problem again this year. But county council decided against funding the program.


A critical factor is to know what kinds of personal struggles students take with them to school, but because of the nature of the problem, it’s hard to quantify. Researchers from Ohio State University found that many of the discrepancies in academic achievement reflect what happens outside of the classroom rather than in it.

Nearly half of Horry County Schools students are on free or reduced lunch, a measure of poverty, compared to 60 percent of students in South Carolina. Seventeen of the 50 schools in the district qualified for a federal program authorized by Congress in 2010 that provides free meals to all students.

The behavioral specialists and teachers at the alternative school can’t say with certainty what percentage of Grand Strand kids are in violent households or under the threat of violence, and how often that leads to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Horry County Schools administrators declined a request by The Herald to have those students take the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) test. But the United Way of Horry County sponsored ACE training in 2019 for area nonprofits that deal with children. Medical professionals and researchers have spent several years trying to spread the word about ACEs and the need to collect data on the children and families they serve using the findings to improve the outreach effectiveness.

Teachers at HCEC try to fill the gaps in knowledge with intensive conversations and counseling. That’s what former HCEC teacher Marsha Tennant did with Jerome Jenkins. 

“J.J. was a good kid at heart. He projected tough, to survive, but I recognized a goodness and desire to do right when I first met him,” she said of the young man sent to death row only a few years after he left her classroom. “I knew most of his story because he shared it with me.”

Tennant, who spent more than 45 years teaching, said students ending up in prison or struggling versus students becoming stable was “a crapshoot.” A lack of transportation in rural-western Horry County, unstable family life and the school system presented significant challenges, she said.

Seemingly unrelated decisions can determine on which side of the violence line people will fall. They also can make it harder for a scared public to empathize with that offender’s challenging upbringing, particularly when his crimes are brutal.

Jenkins, for instance, nearly made it into Job Corps but wasn’t accepted. Instead, within about a year he was arrested and eventually convicted in the murder of convenience store clerk Trisha Stull, 30. He was also involved in the shooting of another clerk, Bala Gopal Paruchuri, 40. One of Jenkins’s accomplices, James Daniels, was convicted and given 45 years for driving the getaway car. Another accomplice, McKinley Daniels, was given a life sentence for his role.

In each incident, the clerks had surrendered the money from the cash register and cooperated. Jenkins and McKinley Daniels shot each of the clerks multiple times on their way out the door.

Jenkins wasn’t a model inmate while he awaited trial either. He repeatedly threatened and even attacked guards, including throwing feces and other bodily fluids on them.

“I’ll snatch your face off,” he told one guard, according to prison documents.

That’s the Jenkins the public got to know and the one labeled “a bad dude” by the prosecution arguing he should be put to death. But that’s not the Jenkins who Tennant knew at the alternative school.

“J.J.’s hope was Job Corps, and that fell through,” she said. “If he had been able to go and leave the area, I would not be answering these questions.”

Jenkins’ background made him susceptible to manipulation, according to a psychiatrist who testified for the defense. He was virtually homeless at the time of the murders and looking for a sense of safety and financial stability. The defense chose to admit Jenkins’s guilt and went straight to the sentencing phase of the trial.

As he sits on death row waiting for the appeals process, his victims’ families continue mourning.

Jenkins’ family, too, struggles. When he was arrested, he was thrown to the ground and handcuffed by a gaggle of police officers in front of his then 2-year-old son – and a girlfriend pregnant with Jenkins’s daughter. Just like Jenkins had, his kids are growing up with a father scheduled to be in prison for decades. His accomplices also have children. Those children must grapple with challenges in their homes and communities that most of their classmates don’t face while finding a way to keep up academically. Just like Jenkins, they are growing up in an area where researchers from Brown University, Harvard University and the U.S. Census Bureau found black boys grow up to make $18,000 a year, about $13,000 less annually than white boys.   

Those researchers analyzed data from 20 million Americans and created the Opportunity Atlas. It has information on every zip code in America that can help determine the likelihood that kids who grow up in poverty will eventually climb out. Where Jenkins grew up and lived, in rural Loris and Placard, children have a “slightly to well below average” chance of beginning on the bottom of the economic ladder and climbing to the top, Jeremiah Prince of Opportunity Insights said.

That’s true even though 45% of low-income black boys in the area have a dad or live in proximity to fathers in their neighborhoods, which is higher than the national average for comparable low-income black boys. Nearly one-fifth of residents in the area live in poverty, well above the national average.

The incarceration rate in zip codes around the Myrtle Beach area ranges from 3.5% to 13%. Just outside Myrtle Beach, low-income white boys have “uncommonly higher incarceration rates for low-income white boys,” Prince said. Incarceration rates for low-income black boys in the area are a bit lower than the rates for low-income black boys in other parts of the country, but those rates are still disturbingly high when compared to white boys and the general population. Black girls in the area tend to grow up to have higher individual incomes than white girls, but white girls usually have higher household incomes because they are more likely to marry an employed man.

“Black men see the greatest challenges, white men see the least,” Prince said. “Among neighborhoods with high incarceration rates, virtually all of them are low-opportunity. This suggests that making sure young black men don’t grow up to be incarcerated is crucial — but it may not be enough by itself. That might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s pretty striking to see it in the data. It also suggests that whatever it is about the neighborhood that makes incarceration so common is extremely difficult for the local kids to overcome.”

There was one particularly unusual finding in the data about the area where Jenkins lived, and it speaks to the challenges facing his son and daughter: Black boys are more at risk than white boys, but they grow up to have higher household incomes than black girls.

“The opposite is true for the majority of the tracts in South Carolina, as well as the U.S.,” Prince said. “The same goes for our employment variable. This is equally unusual.”

The data falls short in providing solutions.

Mentorship and juvenile diversion programs for at-risk boys that incorporate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a form of psychological treatment designed to help a patient to change unhealthy thinking patterns, seems promising, but it’s not clear why, Prince said. 

“My guess is that boys in programs like this are all different, so certain program components might help some boys but not others,” he said. “CBT, to my knowledge, is supposed to help people regulate their emotions, behaviors, and decision making. Trouble with that regulation may be something a lot of at-risk youth have in common.”

 “A mental health wasteland”

Over the past decade, Tim and JoNell Koch of Myrtle Beach have gotten an up-close look at the difficulty of trying to help children who grew up in adverse conditions and are shaped by daily trauma. 

They’ve taken at least two kids into their home, including through adoption and foster care. The Kochs are educated, financially stable and have a stable household. They have numerous professional and personal connections through their work in education, real estate, the Carolina Master Chorale and their church. Still, they struggled to help those kids overcome past fears, hurts and bad habits they’d developed while trying to survive challenging upbringings.

They have had legal run-ins, participated in risky behavior and struggled with suicidal thoughts. They were suspended from school multiple times even though “almost no one in a school ever asked either child what in their history was at the root of their behavior,” Tim Koch said. 

The Kochs shelled out $20,000 a month for intensive therapy for one of the kids because the therapy wasn’t covered by state-provided insurance. The therapy was ineffective, Tim Koch said.

Calling the state “a mental health wasteland” because of the lack of affordable, effective options for struggling families, his family has “endured long periods of anguish, anger, sadness, sleepless nights, depleted funds, marital stress, tension in the home, and feelings of helplessness.”

The Kochs, who are white, also had to deal with racial barriers. They struggled to figure out where the line was between their children being rightly disciplined by schools because of profound behavioral problems and when the system was punishing their kids for being black and unlucky enough to have been born into rough circumstances.

They had reason to be concerned, given that data from the Department of Education showed that black kids as young as three years old are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from preschool than their white counterparts. The Yale Child Study Center said that discrepancy was likely the cause of implicit bias — with black boys being singled out for discipline, even when they had not misbehaved, by black and white teachers alike.

The Kochs also struggled to find the right balance of love and discipline. They found out the hard way that the admonition from Nelson, the Harvard neuroscientist, is all too true – the longer a community waits to intervene on behalf of kids in distress, the harder, longer and more expensive it will be to redirect them.

“Children never get over certain kinds of abuses from children, sexual, physical and verbal,” Tim Koch said. “Abandonment is also a life sentence. These kids experience depression. And they hide everything, so it becomes a huge barrier to understanding what is happening in their lives and what a parent or guardian can do to help them. They seek out kids that have been through what they have been through, and they drag each other down.”

One of the most sobering truths uncovered by neurological and sociological research over the past two decades is that the body never forgets the effects of sustained early childhood trauma. Even the children who “overcome” their early circumstances are susceptible to higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and other health maladies.

Rae’L Jackson is one of the overcomers. She’s a Coastal Carolina University senior studying communications, with an emphasis in journalism, photography and new media. Growing up, she witnessed her father going in and out of jail. Jackson is among the five million American children who have had an incarcerated parent, according to “Parents Behind Bars.”

Jackson’s father was a drunk driver. He was a drug dealer. One day while growing up, her mother told her to look away, but she heard her father’s scream as police officers tased him in her grandmother’s yard.

By her freshman year at CCU, her father was being convicted in federal court for conspiracy to distribute drugs. She had to contend with the shame, choosing not to talk about her family’s troubles to roommates and friends, while figuring out the best way to visit him weekly. When her father was transferred to federal prisons in Arizona and Kentucky, it became more difficult. She’s trying to help him preserve his sanity behind bars as she struggles to maintain her own, clinging to the hope that he will be released next year.

“When I have random breakdowns, no one understands,” she said.

When she went to get counseling at the college, she was told that her “pain would pass.”

In a way it has. She’s kept up good grades, worked two jobs, participated in at least seven clubs on campus clubs and successfully landed internships. 

In a way it hasn’t.

“I just feel like my Dad left me, and I just don’t want another man to leave me right now. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s just a little of my story,” she said. “I’m scared to say that I am the D-word. You know what I’m talking about? Depression. I can’t be that. How could I be that?”

Through the struggles, she remained focused on getting away from a hometown that wasn’t always healthy for her, to blaze a new trail within her family. That goal setting kept her going.

McCullough, the alternative school principal, said something similar about how he, too, became one of the overcomers. It was a strong hand from a strong grandmother. It was the influence of positive peers and other adults who gave him second chances even after he messed up. It was because he wanted something better for himself and his family.

“I had great people in my life who all chipped in to help mold me,” he said. “That motivates me to work even harder to save our kids and to be that person who influences them to make a decision in those one or two moments that can change their lives forever.”

[This article was originally published by]