It’s hard to know when the back and forth between Raniya Wright and another fifth-grade girl started. But on March 25 the two had been arguing on and off all day until the situation boiled over into a fight.
The fight lasted only five to 10 seconds before a teacher broke it up, investigators said. But less than 30 minutes later, the 10-year-old was unconscious in the school nurse’s office. She died two days later.
An autopsy found Raniya died of natural causes, a neurological condition called arteriovenous malformation, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffy Stone announced Friday. The other student will not be charged in the case.
“This does not appear to be a case of bullying,” Colleton County Sheriff R.A. Strickland said during a press conference Friday. “This is a hard case to accept.”
Raniya’s death has left the Walterboro, South Carolina community grieving, and asking how something like this could happen. School officials and the sheriff’s office asked for patience with the investigation in the weeks since, to the frustration of Raniya’s family and community members.
This account of what led to Raniya’s death is based on records released by the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office Friday evening detailing the investigation, including statements from students and teachers who knew the girls or witnessed the fight, and Raniya’s medical history. It also incorporates public statements made by county officials, law enforcement, Raniya’s family and their lawyers over the past three weeks.
The day she collapsed
Raniya did not want to go to school that day, her mother Ashley Wright said Friday.
In witness statements from 18 students who were in the class during the fight, the fifth graders described arguing that started at the beginning of the school day.
These statements, Maj. Jason Chapman cautioned, do come from fifth-grade students and differ on some facts. But they do line up on several key points in the day’s timeline and with investigator’s findings.
The arguing between Raniya and the other girl, whose name was redacted in the report and will be referred to as Student 2, started at the beginning of the school day, several students told investigators.
“In P.E. I saw and heard Raniya and (Student 2) insulting each other in class,” one student said. Others said Student 2 kicked Raniya after the argument, then Raniya pushed Student 2.
In an interview with investigators, the P.E. teacher said he saw the two standing up and exchanging words as he was taking roll. He couldn’t hear what they said, but “it wasn’t friendly,” he told officers in an audio recording of the interview provided to McClatchy. He said he did not see any physical contact during the class.
The class finished lunch at noon and walked back to the classroom, stopping at the bathroom on the way, according to a timeline provided by investigators.
In the incident report, investigators determined Raniya and Student 2 “had been exchanging words throughout the day.”
The class had a substitute teacher that day. Back in the classroom, the girls’ classmates said Raniya and Student 2 started throwing balled up paper at each other.
While they were in the classroom, according to the students and police, Raniya got up from her desk and walked to the front of the class. She hit Student 2 in the back of the head. Then Student 2 got out of her seat and hit back.
Some of the students said Student 2 had Raniya “in a headlock and was striking her in the head with her fist,” according to the incident report.
Several students said Raniya hit her head on a bookshelf during the fight.
The substitute teacher broke up the fight quickly, Sheriff R.A. Strickland said Friday. It lasted five to 10 seconds, he said.
In a written statement to police, the substitute teacher said she had already taken recess away from the two girls for arguing. She said she had her back turned to the girls when the two started fighting behind the teacher’s chair.
An assistant principal was nearby and took the girls one at a time to the principal’s office, according to the incident report.
“Neither student showed any sign of injury,” Chapman said.
Raniya told an assistant principal her head hurt, according to the report. An administrator began walking her to the nurse’s office when she said she couldn’t walk and went down to her knees, then the floor. She had to be carried to the nurse, where she vomited and then became unresponsive, the report says.
A school counselor called 911 at 1 p.m. Paramedics arrived 18 minutes later and took Raniya to the Colleton Medical Center, according to the report.
From there, Raniya was airlifted to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, where she died two days later.
What about bullying?
The question over whether bullying played a role is harder to pin down.
Raniya’s mother, Ashley Wright, and her attorney have said repeatedly that Student 2 bullied Raniya.
Her daughter “did not want to go to school because of this girl,” Ashley Wright said during a press conference Friday outside the sheriff’s office. “My daughter loved school.”
“I’m very upset with the school system, starting out, only because of the fact that I’ve been complaining about the person that she fought numerous times to them,” Ashley Wright said on Good Morning America in early April. “That’s what really breaks me down and makes me question to myself why nothing was never done up until now with this happening.
“I’m thinking they got it handled, and they failed me.”
Margie Pizarro, an attorney representing Ashley Wright, said the mother had called the school several times to complain about her daughter being bullied.
Chapman, the sheriff’s office investigator who also has a child in the school, said Friday: “Bullying did not play a part in this incident.”
He declined to talk more generally about bullying at the school and in the past between Student 2 and Raniya. “We did not investigate the Colleton County School District for bullying,” he said.
A teacher at Forest Hills, who was close to Raniya and her mother, said she had never heard of bullying problems. Raniya spent time in her classroom first thing most mornings when she got off the bus before her first class, she told investigators, according to an audio recording of the interview provided to McClatchy.
“She never mentioned anything about bullying. She never mentioned that anyone was bothering her,” the teacher told investigators. “I feel like, if something was wrong she would have told me.”
She said Raniya’s mother also never told her about bullying problems.
According to the police report, “Wright stated this had been an ongoing situation between her daughter and (Student 2). Ms. Wright stated over the last few weeks her daughter started complaining about going to school and not wanting to be there. She also stated that Raniya was telling her of issues with (Student 2) picking on her. Ms. Wright stated she did not go to the school and speak to them about these issues.”
“This is not where the story ends,” Pizarro said. She said her firm is conducting a separate investigation into what led to the fight that day and Raniya’s death.
An undiagnosed condition
Raniya’s mother described her daughter as “healthy and active” at Friday’s press conference. She described a girl who loved to play basketball and was an usher each Sunday at her church.
It wasn’t until after her death that doctors diagnosed Raniya with a brain arteriovenous malformation, Solicitor Duffy Stone said Friday. She had a history of complaining about headaches, he said.
The solicitor and investigators sat down with the team from the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston to get an understanding of the brain condition that they determined caused Raniya’s death.
“It’s a relatively rare condition,” Stone said.
“A brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM) is a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
“The arteries are responsible for taking oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the brain. Veins carry the oxygen-depleted blood back to the lungs and heart. A brain AVM disrupts this vital process,” the clinic explains.
Doctors don’t know what causes AVM, the Mayo Clinic says, “but researchers believe most brain AVMs emerge during fetal development.”
The AVM fact sheet lists brain hemorrhage as one of the possible complications from the condition.
Medical records provided by the sheriff’s office show Raniya went to a doctor complaining of a headache seven times since the beginning of 2017.
According to the investigation report, the teacher who was close to the family told officers, “Mom felt bad she did not take Raniya to the doctor before, even though Raniya had been complaining about headaches.”