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A mother and daughter leave balloons as memorial gifts at Forest Hills Elementary School in Walterboro on Thursday, March 28, 2019. Wade Spees/Staff

WALTERBORO — On the day 10-year-old Raniya Wright died, Traniah Wyman asked her aunt a question.

"She's a sweet girl. Why did she have to die?"

Traniah's aunt could not tell her why, or even how. The greater Walterboro community still has questions about Raniya, who died Wednesday following a fight in her 5th-grade classroom at Forest Hills Elementary on Monday.

Questions like, where were the adults when the fight broke out? What can be done to save students' lives?

And why does tragedy keep coming to Walterboro?

"It seems like it's the norm now," said Walterboro resident Shawnya Mitchell, who waited outside the school district office hoping for answers Thursday.

The fight at Forest Hills that led to Wright's death came just three days after a man died in the parking lot of a nearby church, Faith Walterboro. A March 22 incident report states the man was suspected of burglary and was armed with a knife. A Colleton County Sheriff's deputy shot the man dead following a confrontation. The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating the case.

Earlier in the month, on March 2, a Walterboro man opened fire on a woman's car near a busy intersection, injuring a 1-year-old infant inside when the glass rained down, according to local law enforcement. The shooting brought back memories of the violent crime and gang activity that plagued the area in the early 2000s and 2010s, peaking in 2007.

In a city with a population just over 5,000, there are few if any degrees of separation when tragedy strikes. Traniah knew Raniya from a summer reading camp. Parents at the district office said they knew the man who died in the church parking lot and questioned the sparse official narrative of his death.

Walterboro Mayor Bill Young said he is working to attract businesses and tourism, and he wishes the world could get to know the better side of Walterboro, a historic and tight-knit city.

"We are grieving as a community, but we’re a resilient community and we’ve survived for hundreds of years through wars and hurricanes and cyclones. And we will move forward from this as well," Young said.

A history of healing

The city of Walterboro was born out of tragedy. The year was 1783, and two brothers, Paul and Jacob Walter, went searching for a safe place to take Paul's sick daughter Mary after 11 of Paul's children had died from malaria.

Leaving the mosquito-infested rice plantations of the Lowcountry and traveling along Ireland Creek, they found a remote hickory grove near a clear running stream and decided to move their family at once. Mary began to feel better and went on to live to age 76, according to the 1998 history book "Around Walterboro."

Walterboro became a summer retreat, a rural outpost, and by the mid-20th century it had become a popular stop for vacationers traveling between New York and Florida.

Postcards from that era depict the Lady Lafayette Tourist Cottages with striped reddish awnings, tall trees shading the swimming pool at El Rancho Motel, and an art deco tower jutting from the entrance of the Interstate Glass House Restaurant. Hubster's Bakery downtown was known for its fresh coconut macaroons.

The attractions that snowbirds wrote home about are mostly gone now. Much of the industry that employed the residents has since disappeared. On signs leading into town, Walterboro bills itself as the "Front Porch of the Lowcountry," but for insiders and outsiders alike, the reputation is often grimmer.

When Pastor Eric J. Campbell talks about his town, he goes all the way back to the Walter family. According to that origin story, Walterboro is a place of healing, not simply of tragedy.

"We've got to change the way we think; we've got to change the way we speak about our city," Campbell said. "When we begin to take pride in our city and be the hands of Christ, people will see a change."

Campbell, pastor of Word for Life Ministry, helped organize a prayer rally Thursday night in a public park that bridged race, class and denomination. The mayor was there, as were his critics. A diverse crowd held hands and cried out together.

Campbell helped organize a similar prayer event in 2013 after a long chain of violence that earned the city a bad reputation. He said he was able to minister to gang members, and pastors began holding weekly community prayer meetings. Now he says he regrets letting the those prayer events come to an end.

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Colleton County School District School board chairman Tim Mabry speaks to the media residents after an emergency board meeting on the death of a Forest Hills Elementary School student that died after an altercation with another student at the school. Brad Nettles/Staff

Still shaken

The school district didn't call parents when news broke of Raniya's death on Wednesday. Parents just showed up in the car-rider lines to take their children home.

On Thursday, some parents of elementary students were still keeping their children out of school.

"They're scared," Mitchell said.

Families who waited outside the district office Thursday during an hours-long board meeting only grew more frustrated after the meeting ended. The school board and district superintendent took no questions. They read their statements from a script and exited the board room in silence.

"I'd like to say to the superintendent: 'your time is up.' And if the board does not hold him accountable, we'll vote them out," said Tyesha Aiken, a parent of two children in the school district.

Marguerite Criss Johnson, who ran for mayor of Walterboro in 2017, said the sheriff and other local officials could have done more this week to speak to the community's concerns. She said people are growing jaded.

"It has been that way so long for us that everybody says it’s nothing going to be done; nobody’s going to do anything, they’re going to sweep it under the rug," Johnson said.

Johnson has grandchildren in the schools and said the schools need to have active and engaged parent-teacher organizations again. Residents need to get more involved in local politics, and neighborhoods need to organize crime watches, she said. She plans to run for mayor again in 2021.

"There isn’t going to be anything major happen until the people come out and voice their opinion and hold people in authority accountable," Johnson said.

Meanwhile at Forest Hills Elementary, a pile of stuffed animals, balloons and flowers was growing at the base of the marquee sign, which still hadn't changed its cheery message: "Home of the Cougar Cubs. Be Pawsome."

The gleaming Mylar balloons showed a different slogan in permanent marker: "Justice for Ny."

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.