Father talks about son's dark despair

The father of the Academic Magnet High School student who set himself on fire near the school’s front entrance this week said his son “was struck with a despair so dark that he could not see beyond it, in spite of the love, support and counseling he received.”

Trace Williams appeared briefly before news media Friday to explain his son Aaron’s death. Reading from a prepared statement, and citing a letter written by the 16-year-old before his death, Williams said the self-immolation was an attempt “to reach out to as many hearts as possible and to emphasize the importance of living lives of love and compassion.”

He said his son’s lifelong ambition was to be a doctor and help others.

“Even in the midst of despair, his thoughtful and compassionate nature came through,” Williams said.

North Charleston police gave the note to the Williams family, according to the Rev. Rob Dewey of Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy. Dewey has spent time with the family during the past three days and was one of about 45 volunteers, counselors and school officials who converged Friday on Academic Magnet to assist students and faculty in the aftermath of an incident that shocked many and reminded some of the way the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire or terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, galvanized the community.

“It affects so many people,” Dewey said.

The complete letter was not made available, but Williams said that his son “was suddenly confused and felt unable to help himself. He then expressed his concern for other kids who might be having feelings like he did, and he said he hoped they could be ‘helped in a very confidential manner.’ ”

In an unrelated incident, a 17-year-old Fort Dorchester High School student took his life Thursday evening. The student was found hanging in his bedroom closet, according to a police report.

Aaron’s death shocked the community and prompted a quick response. The second death of a teenager in one week put school officials at Dorchester District 2 and in Charleston County on high alert.

Mental health experts say teens are among the most vulnerable when it comes to thoughts of suicide but that opportunities for counseling and intervention are available.

An easy option is dialing the 211 Hotline operated by the Trident United Way, which serves the tri-county metropolitan area. The call center is staffed by paid and volunteer counselors trained in crisis intervention.Sally Burnett, community volunteer coordinator for the 211 Hotline, said noticable changes in behavior can be an indicator of someone contemplating suicide.

“If an outgoing child becomes withdrawn, or a withdrawn child becomes more hostile,” these can be warning signs, she said.

Isolation or expressions of loneliness are other symptoms, along with obsessing about death or finding no joy in an activity previously .

A good response is to listen in a non-judgmental way, “not to condemn those feelings but to respect who they are and what they are going through,”

Burnett said. “Everyone has the potential to be touched by this kind of tragedy.”

Aaron Williams was born in 1994 in Fairfield, Calif., according to an obituary. His father is an officer in the Air Force. The family — Trace and Beth Evelyn Tockey Williams, and their two daughters, Hannah and Hailey — lives in Mount Pleasant.

Jason Sakran, communications specialist with the Charleston County School District, said he spent most of Friday at Academic Magnet where the atmosphere was somber. Some students played guitars, others consoled one another, he said. “They were trying to be as normal as possible.”

Lisa Herring, the school district’s director for student support services, coordinated crisis response efforts, Sakran said. Volunteers from the College of Charleston, Medical University joined other clinical and health care professionals on campus, he said. School officials are encouraging a free expression of concerns among students and openness among teachers and staff, he said.

Pat Raynor, communications director for Dorchester District 2, said guidance counselors in the schools are trained to deal with “life issues” and are “already vigilant.” But recent events could spark a renewed commitment to training and intervention, she said. “Counselors at Fort Dorchester High School were busy today.”

School officials and PTA members have tried to raise awareness of teen crisis and appropriate responses through parent education programs, Raynor said. It’s important for parents to stay alert and cooperate with district staff and teachers.

“They need to know the school is a resource for them,” she said.

Schuyler Kropf contributed to the report. Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.