South Carolina

‘Everybody lost.’ Town decries bullying among confusion and anger about SC girl’s death

A gray SUV drove through Bells Highway in Walterboro, South Carolina on Thursday. The vehicle’s windows were painted with scrawled letters that read, “Save our kids from from bullies” and “Closed mouths speak,” with an arrow pointing skyward to represent the word “up.” The back windshield read: “Justice for RANIYA.”

The words and the emotion that prompted them were felt throughout Walterboro in Colleton County a day after 10-year-old RaNiya Wright died following a fight at an elementary school.

RaNiya was a wonderful student. She loved to write, spend time with her friends, play basketball and loved being a big sister,” the Colleton County School District said in a statement. “She was actively involved in her church as a junior usher. She will be missed greatly by her family, friends and the entire school community.”

The death “shook the whole county,” a resident said.

RaNiya, a fifth-grader known as Ny by friends and family, died after a Tuesday fight at Forest Hills Elementary School, officials have said. Residents interviewed by The State on Thursday asked about who should be held accountable and what the circumstances were that led to a little girl being killed at school.

Although authorities have not released details about what happened, many residents — believing that bullying played a role — united against it.

RaNiya’s mother, Ash Wright, spoke out online, posting pictures of her hospitalized daughter. “This is what bullying” caused, she wrote.

Mothers from Colleton County and other states responded, telling Wright they might not know her but they feel for her and were thinking about her.

Many of the mothers also railed against bullying. One of those mothers was Kimberly Uptergrove.

Uptergrove owns the SUV with the “Save our kids from bullying” message. RaNiya and her child played together at a park near the school.

“Where is the peace anymore?” Uptergrove said. “We have … no peace of mind our kids are safe anywhere but home.”

Their own school tragedy

A steady stream of vehicles pulled up in front of Forest Hills Elementary on Thursday. People got out and left teddy bears, balloons and flowers around the school’s marquee, a memorial to the young girl. For some residents, the desecration of the school’s sanctity feels like their version of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut or Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

Jen Hutto said it “absolutely” feels like a school shooting.

Hutto, who grew up in Walterboro, attended Forest Hills Elementary. As she pushed her toddler around in a cart at Walmart, Hutto said she tried to put herself in the place of a fifth-grader.

“For the other kids who saw it, kids who have to go back to school, those kids who have to try and find a new normal,” Hutto said.

As a recent mother, she finds the pain of losing a child beyond imagining.

“We want them to find any peace they can in this situation,” Hutto said about RaNyia’s family. “I think now there needs to be some reassessment of safety.”

Residents interviewed by The State said school district policy, community leaders and public safety officials should be assessed.

“Blaming only gets so far,” Hutto said. “It all needs to be assessed.”

A town taking a stance

Three generations of Patty Decheubel’s family have attended Colleton County schools. Two generations have dealt with bullying, and she wants it to stop with her great-granddaughter’s generation.

Decheubel has felt the same tensions about who’s to blame for the fifth-grader’s death and what should be done.

“Everybody and nobody can be blamed,” she said. Bullying, “that’s the main thing. We’ve got to find some way to stop this bullying.”

Decheubel, 68, came to Walterboro 53 years ago to get away from school tormentors and other abuse. She moved from Brooklyn, New York, to the rural South Carolina town and never finished school because of bullying. When she heard about the young girl’s death, she thought of herself and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Bullying begins when a sense of community breaks down, Decheubel said. She hopes people can rally around religion and other values that she believes can bring people together. Those values should be brought into schools, she said.

Around Walterboro, faith and its place in the community and public spaces were a prominent topic Thursday.

“We need prayer and peace back in our school,” Uptergrove said.

For Decheubel, faith in public spaces isn’t about “throwing God in people’s face,” but rather uniting in the wake of tragedy.

“We all need to get together and make our schools safer,” Decheubel said.

Everyone can come together, Hutto said. That’s because in Walterboro, with the death of RaNiya Wright, “everybody lost.”

Letting the anger out

About a dozen angry residents gathered outside a Colleton County school board meeting. They wanted to voice their concerns to the board members but were barred from the meeting during a more than two hour closed session.

After some of the residents waited for hours, they were allowed into the board room, but the meeting adjourned without the residents getting a chance to speak, provoking angry shouts from the residents.

“Is this how you care about your community?” a resident yelled at the board members who attempted to leave the room.

Board chairman Tim Mabry read a statement during the meeting that said board members could not talk about the situation while an investigation is ongoing.

“The district remains committed to supporting our community through this time of mourning and loss,” Mabry read, saying the district would be offering support services for students.

Colleton County education Superintendent Franklin Foster made a similar statement, asking the community for help “preventing rumor and speculation.”

Residents shouted questions about bullying and asked for details about what happened in the death.

After the meeting, Chaffon Colleton spoke up outside the district office. She said her 12-year-old child was bullied at school.

“Nothing’s going to change,” Colleton said.

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.