It’s been two weeks since two fifth-graders got into a fight in a Walterboro classroom and almost two weeks since one of them died. It’s still unclear if she died from wounds suffered in that fight because in those two weeks her family and her community have been left in the dark as to what exactly caused 10-year-old Raniya Wright’s March 27 death.
In that two weeks of silence, people have filled the void with rumors and conjecture, sharing what they believe they know. In the past week, two women — a lawmaker and the girl’s mother — have offered very public and conflicting versions of what might have happened. This has caused confusion but hasn’t caused officials to come forward with a more complete version of events.
Ashley Wright, Raniya’s mother, told “Good Morning America” that her daughter was bullied at school but that “nothing was done” — even after she brought this to the attention of the Colleton County School District. But nobody can know for sure because school officials have so far declined to clarify.
In the GMA interview early Monday, Ashley Wright told the nation the school district “failed” her.
“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,” Wright said in the interview. “That’s what really breaks me down and makes me question to myself why nothing was never done up until now with this happening.”
Wright said her daughter hit her head on a bookshelf at some point during the fight, though she did not say how this happened or how she learned about it. She could not be reached by The Post and Courier later Monday.
The mother’s words on the morning television show contradict the words of a South Carolina lawmaker, who said last week on the Senate floor that Raniya took no physical blows.
“Not even the banging of (her) head,” Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, said on April 1. “The head was not even an issue.”
Reached by phone Monday, Matthews declined to give any additional comment. She posted a statement on Facebook saying that it was never her intention to relate specifics about the altercation.
"I was simply sharing that by all accounts, this was not a gang fight. It was an incident between 2 fifth grade girls.
"The words, ‘scuffle’ and ‘going back and forth’ were not used or intended to minimize or trivialize the altercation between the girls.
"I have known all of the parties and/or members of their families for many years and do not represent any of them," she said.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Democrat whose district includes Walterboro, called it unacceptable for the families of both children involved in the altercation to have been kept in the dark for this long.
"I believe that the parents on each side have an absolute right to know," Bamberg said. "I don’t care about an investigation or the other politics of the situation. Why can’t someone just tell this young girl’s parents what happened?"
The Colleton County Sheriff’s Office and school district have been mum on the details surrounding the tragedy, one that has gripped this rural, crime-challenged town of about 5,000 people, about 50 miles west of Charleston.
Patricia Simmons, the vice chairwoman of the Colleton County School Board, said Monday she is waiting for the investigation to wrap before offering comment.
“Once that comes out, hopefully, that will spread light and explain a lot of the situation that is going on,” Simmons said. “I mean, we are jumping to conclusions. We’re not 100 percent. Right now, what we need to do is pray for one another and just focus on the safety of the children.”
Asked if she could debunk any rumors circulating about Raniya’s death, Simmons said, “I’m not at liberty to say anything about the situation until we have gotten some clarity from the medical examiner.”
The autopsy was conducted on March 29, and officials at the time said results would be issued several weeks later.
The Colleton County School Board has not held a public meeting since March 28, when Walterboro residents waited for hours outside the district office for an explanation of what happened. Some locals responded in outrage after the school board chair and superintendent read prepared statements and walked out without taking questions.
The district was scheduled to hold a “Community Conversation on Student Achievement” on Monday but the event has been indefinitely postponed.
The district has released scant information in the form of updates on its website. Its last statement, dated April 3, provided no additional details about the incident or what steps the school board might take in response to it.
Reached by phone Monday, district spokesman Sean Gruber said the school board is considering allowing “additional public comment” at its next regularly scheduled meeting April 16 — approaching a month since Raniya’s death. He gave no further details.
“The Colleton County Sheriff’s Office, they’re taking the lead on the investigation. We don’t want to release any statements or information that could jeopardize what they’re doing," Gruber said. "So until they authorize us to be able to release details, we just can’t.”
The silence from officials, a crisis communications specialist said, often tends to create more white noise than it does prevent the spread of misinformation.
“If you aren’t shaping your message, someone else will, especially in a crisis. And when there is a void in information, there is fertile ground for rumors, misinformation and rising emotions,” said Heather Hoopes-Matthews, director of Columbia-based NP Strategy. "At certain times in a crisis, there can be no new information to share, or legal needs have slowed the flow of information. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep the public informed with status updates that repeat the latest information.”
Striking a balance between informing stakeholders and protecting an investigation, she said, is not a unique challenge.
“Ignoring the challenge is rarely a long-term viable option,” Hoopes-Matthews said.
District Superintendent Franklin Foster released a statement Monday saying he “adamantly disagrees” with any claim alleging the school “did not do enough to protect Raniya.”
“We work hard every day to protect all of our students. In time, the facts regarding this tragic incident will be revealed,” he said. “Until then, while I wish I could provide you complete information about this tragic incident, I cannot do so because there is a pending law enforcement investigation and because of student privacy laws.”
Caitlin Byrd and Thomas Novelly contributed to this report.