Ryan Reese had a chaotic start to the school year at Berkeley County Middle.
The seventh grader from Moncks Corner was bullied by her peers right when classes started in September. In the cruel way that middle-schoolers target each other, nothing was off limits. Her skin color, her shoes, her hair and her clothes all became punchlines to her tormentors.
One girl, Reonna Smalls, joined in with the teasing and laughed when classmates made jokes.
But when Reonna's father, Randy Smalls, found out that his daughter was involved, the unthinkable happened. He had saved up $300 to take her shopping. Instead, he used it on Ryan. That way she wouldn't be teased for not having the newest fashions.
Reonna and Ryan's story exploded online. From September to the unexpected end of the Berkeley County school year in March, due to the novel coronavirus, Randy Smalls' unusual parenting method got attention from "Good Morning America" and the "Steve Harvey Show."
But national attention aside, he is optimistic that it could spark some much-needed local change.
"I hope people learn that bullying not only affects the kids, it also affects parents and the school system," Randy Smalls said. "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all. And as parents, we need to step up and know when to step in."
The phone call
Ryan Reese didn't want her mother to step in.
Despite being teased repeatedly by a group of girls, she told Richauna Reese that she needed to handle it herself.
"She didn't want me to go to school to handle it, even thought I wanted to," Richauna Reese said. "But I respected her decision."
A couple of weeks passed and the bullying wasn't getting better. Richauna wanted names. Reonna was one of the girls. She called the Smalls family. Later that day, Randy called back. He wanted to speak to Ryan.
"He told me and her that he was bullied as a student," Richauna said. "And he didn't like that his daughter was a part of the group bullying her."
Randy took Ryan on an extravagant shopping spree. He got her hair done, he bought her new clothes and shoes. And then he posted about his parenting method on Facebook.
The post garnered more than 6,000 likes and nearly 3,000 shares. But it didn't stop there.
Word spreads fast on the internet.
Yahoo News and other national media outlets wrote about the Randy's story. In November, "Good Morning America" host and former New York Giants Football Player Michael Strahan brought Reonna and Randy to New York for the show.
During the interview, Reonna admitted that she learned a lot from her Dad.
"When he took Ryan shopping, at first, I was mad," Reonna said. "But afterwards I was glad. She needed help."
But it didn't stop there.
In February, comedian and "Family Feud" game show host Steve Harvey had Ryan, Reonna, Randy and Richauna on as guests on his talk show program. Ryan, who began to tear up and stumble over her words at some points, said she was grateful for Randy stepping up as a parent.
"This helped me with my depression and my confidence," she said. "I'm getting better at speaking up for myself and saying what's right and what's wrong."
Ryan and Richauna told Harvey that there wasn't a father figure in their household and that Randy stepped up in his absence.
"This is an example of men who step into kids' lives who don't have a father that's active," Harvey said. "That's a special kind of dude. I take my hat off to you for that."
Randy has organized a father-daughter Valentine's Day dance every year in Moncks Corner. On the air, he asked Ryan if she'd go with him and Reonna this year. Ryan could barely speak.
Harvey had a surprise. Before the show, the celebrity called Foxy Lady boutique in Myrtle Beach. The store agreed to gift Ryan and Reonna each a dress for the upcoming dance.
Shannon Howard, the manager of Foxy Lady, said the value of the dresses was upward of $400.
"Kids are getting bullied, and a parent may never know it," Howard said. "We're not there, in the classroom, every day. I thought it was a great way for that father to show that bullying won't be accepted."
The 2020 school year
A month after the Valentine's Day Dance in Berkeley County, the world changed.
The global pandemic from COVID-19 closed schools across the nation, including Berkeley County School District on March 16.
When Richauna and Randy look back on their daughters' seventh grade school year, from the start it was highlighted by the viral Facebook post.
It's clear Randy's messaged resonated. It's because bullying, nationwide, is an overwhelming problem in American schools.
At least 28 percent of U.S. students in sixth through 12th grade have experienced bullying, according to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children. Roughly the same percentage also admit to teasing or picking on someone.
Berkeley County schools are no stranger to bullying.
Using school-sanctioned Google Chromebooks, students would threaten, sext and bully one another. The district has been relying heavily on technology like anonymous reporting apps and remote monitoring to stop cyber-bullying.
But school districts can't regulate what kids will say to each other, what names they will call their peers and how students treat their classmates in person.
Randy said this is where parents need to step in.
"Bullying is a huge problem," Randy said. "We got an idea of wanting to raise our kids with more stuff than we had. The best shoes, the best clothes. We kind of create our own bullies. We as parents need to take responsibility."
Randy has started a group called Berkeley County Parents Against Bullies. They were meeting twice a month before the pandemic hit. His goal is simple, but important. He wants more parents to use positivity and frequent communication with their children to find out what problems they face at school. That way, they'll stay out of trouble.
Richauna said Ryan is looking forward to her eighth grade year. Her daughter sees a therapist regularly. And, overall, she feels more confident.
"Ryan and Reonna are looking out for each other," Richauna said. "When I look back, I was shocked to see the way that everything went. Hopefully their story will help kids and adults speak up and nip things in the bud."
Because of the pandemic, it's not clear if classes will be on for the 2020 academic year. If they are, Ryan knows she has someone she can call to go back-to-school shopping with.