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SC senator says 5th-grader who died last week took no physical blows

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COLUMBIA — A state senator says a 10-year-old Colleton County girl who died last week received no blows in a brief shoving match at school but later grabbed her head in pain while in the principal's office.

Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, said Tuesday she wanted to correct false rumors surrounding the death of fifth-grader Raniya Wright. Bright Matthews, speaking from the State Senate podium, said she's spoken with the families of both girls involved in the incident at Forest Hills Elementary School, as well as the substitute teacher in charge, law enforcement and school officials.

Raniya Wright (copy)

Raniya Wright. Provided

"I’ve heard a lot of people say, 'Oh, they were kicking her. They ganged her.' None of that. That’s so far from the truth — not even the banging of (her) head. The head was not even an issue," Bright Matthews said. 

In a statement, attorneys for Raniya's mother called the senator's comments made less than 24 hours before her funeral, "disheartening and deeply regrettable."

"Every official investigating this incident from the Colleton County Sheriff’s (Office) to the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office to the Colleton County Coroner has stated that this is an ongoing investigation that would likely take weeks to complete," the attorneys stated.

"Our legislators should be regularly advancing legislation that serves the good of their communities and their constituents as opposed to waiting for tragedies that they believe would lend themselves well to the introduction of bills."

Bright Matthews said Raniya and another girl in her class had argued all day before it turned into some "pushing back and forth" just before lunch. The class's substitute teacher intervened, Bright Matthews said, and an assistant principal, who happened to be in the hallway nearby, escorted both students to the principal's office. 

"It was all over in a matter of minutes, not even a minute," she said. "They seemed to be OK when they left the classroom, both girls."

While there was no surveillance system inside the classroom, there was video in the hallway, Bright Matthews said. 

"Normally good kids act out when there’s a substitute teacher," she said.

On the way to the principal's office, Bright Matthews said, "they were still going back and forth between them, with their mouths."

Once there, Raniya complained her head hurt, she said.

"She grabbed her head, then she was taken to the nurse’s office, which is steps away. Then she became nauseous, vomited, and by the time she was taken to the hospital she was unresponsive and medevaced to MUSC." 

The next day, Bright Matthews said, Raniya's grandmother called her and said, "Oh my God, she's non-responsive. They can't get a lead in her. My grandbaby is going to die!' I was shocked."

Raniya’s mother, Ashley Wright, said last week that her daughter was bullied at school and “nothing was done.” Authorities and school officials have been mum on whether bullying contributed to the fatal incident.

"While there has been no official conclusion made about the issue of bullying in this matter, we can all agree that bullying is rampant in our schools and communities," attorneys for Ashley Wright stated.

Bright Matthews did not directly address bullying allegations from the podium, other than to tell her colleagues it would be a waste of time to introduce anti-bullying legislation in response to the tragic death.  

She called it a tragedy not only for Raniya and her family, but "imagine what the school is feeling, what the teacher who was out is feeling, what the principal’s feeling, the assistant principal, the nurse, and more importantly the other girl on the other side."

Asked later about the bullying allegations, Bright Matthews said, "I think it's a case of a 10-year-old acting like a 10-year-old."

What the Legislature should do in response, she said, is lower class sizes to less than 16 students per teacher in elementary schools and fund more mental health counselors in schools. 

Raniya was among 20 to 22 students in her fifth-grade classroom, Bright Matthews said. 

"These kids were bunched up. The desks are all bunched together, with not even a lot of room to walk in the class," she said. "There should not be one teacher trying to supervise 25 kids. If a teacher was in a smaller classroom environment, the teacher would know what’s going on with little Billy."

Staff at Forest Hills Elementary called 911 around 1 p.m. March 25 and reported that a student had collapsed. A school resource officer assigned to the building was on the scene when rescue crews arrived.

Authorities found Raniya in the nurse’s station “unconscious but breathing,” an incident report stated.

Raniya died March 27 at Medical University Hospital in Charleston, two days after the altercation.

An autopsy was conducted Friday. Authorities have not released the initial results, saying they are awaiting medical test results.

The school district said the other student involved has been suspended. That student has not been publicly identified.

District spokesman Sean Gruber said it's important for law enforcement to finish investigating what happened before district officials comment. 

"We realize and appreciate that people want to know exactly what happened in this incident," he said. "Now is the time for our community to mourn the loss of a child. The facts of this tragedy will become clearer in the weeks ahead."

In a statement, the sheriff's office said the "very complex investigation" will take at least several weeks.

At Bright Matthews' request, senators stood in a moment of silence Tuesday for all involved, including Raniya, her family and law enforcement. 

A funeral for Raniya is scheduled for noon Wednesday at Saints Center Ministries, 106 Colson St., in Walterboro. The school announced on its website Tuesday that any students who wanted to attend would be given an excused absence for the day. In addition, the school announced a day of remembrance would be held on Friday and invited staff and students to wear pink or purple, Raniya's favorite colors. 

Angie Jackson and Gregory Yee contributed to this report. 

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Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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