Shaken by 5th Grader’s Classroom Death, Quiet South Carolina Town Wants Answers

A memorial at the sign of Forest Hills Elementary School in Walterboro, S.C where Raniya Wright, the 5th-grade student who died Wednesday, Mar. 27 after a fight Monday, Mar. 25, attended school. (Photo: MATT BURKHARTT/Staff)

On any given day here, vehicles with out-of-state plates are parked on East Washington Street in downtown.

The small Southern city is just a few miles off Interstate 95, a major thoroughfare for travelers moving up and down the East Coast. For some, it might serve as merely a rest stop on the way to somewhere else, but to its residents and many visitors, it’s considered “the front porch of the Lowcountry.”

Walterboro is in the Charleston TV market, but its nearest station is more than 40 miles away. Without a daily newspaper in town, it’s the kind of place where people often hear more about what’s happening in the community from their neighbors than from media – a place where residents remark that reporters only show up when something bad happens.

Not only did something tragic happen here, the unimaginable happened: A 10-year-old girl who played basketball and loved pink and purple died two days after she fought with a classmate at their elementary school.

Now Walterboro, about an hour from the South Carolina coast, a city that has weathered both war and hurricanes, finds itself in the national spotlight for the wrong reason.

In the aftermath of Raniya Wright’s death, official information has been scarce, despite questions from residents and parents. A state legislator has provided the most detail about the severity of the altercation in an attempt she said to stop the rush to place blame, but the school district and law enforcement have remained tight-lipped about specific details, citing a need to remain patient during an ongoing investigation.

So the questions and the rumors persist.

Although he’s willing to wait, Mayor Bill Young agrees that answers are needed.

“All of those things are things we’re going to have to wait and see, but I think any parent who sends his child to school … this would impact them,” Young said. “Because it’s just an unthinkable occurrence and not what you expect to happen.”

For days, a memorial of pink and purple balloons, stuffed animals and cards has grown outside of Forest Hills Elementary School, where Raniya walked through the doors for the last time on March 25.

Mourners gathered Wednesday – nine days after Raniya was first hospitalized and seven days after her death – for her funeral at Saints Center Ministries, a church on the outskirts of Walterboro.

History and charm of Walterboro

Forest Hills Elementary School is in the Forest Hills neighborhood – a community where yards are groomed and homes are well-kept. A few blocks from the school is a small park with a playground, and a pond with a fishing dock.

Just about a mile from Forest Hills sits historic downtown Walterboro, lined with shops, restaurants and a handful of empty storefronts, though there are fewer empty spaces today than there used to be, according to Young.

The streets near the center of Walterboro have Lowcountry charm, with Spanish moss draped in large oak trees in front of antebellum homes.

Light poles display banners with the town’s nickname, “The Front Porch of the Lowcountry.”

“Southern front porches are inviting,” Young said. “They’re where you welcome in guests and visitors, and we kind of feel like we play that role here in the Lowcountry.”

Young, mayor of Walterboro for a decade, moved to the city in 1973, right out of college. He was first elected to serve the city on its council in 1989.

Walterboro is a diverse city of 5,121 residents, with an African-American population of 53%, according to 2017 census data. A two-mile radius around the city serves between 10,000 and 15,000 more people, Young said.

The city sits between two exits off I-95 where Young said 40,000 to 60,000 cars pass per day.

Young said the community invests in itself. Several years ago, voters agreed to a tax increase to fund renovation and beautification projects that were expected to draw more visitors into town from I-95.

Walterboro has a median income of $28,929, well below the national median of $61,372, according to census data.

Young calls it a great place to live, a close-knit community where people who grow up here often come back to settle after college.

It’s a community that was born out of a need for healing.

Paul and Jacob Walter, a pair of brothers who grew rice near Charleston, first settled in Walterboro while searching for a place with fewer mosquitoes and fewer of the diseases the insects carry.

They found what is now known as Walterboro, a place they hoped could serve as a salve for the tragedies they faced.

Walterboro was incorporated in 1826 and through nearly 200 years, it has faced challenges: the Civil War, Hurricane Hugo and a cyclone that took out much of the town in 1879.

Mayor Young describes Walterboro residents as resilient. And in the wake of the tragic death of a fifth-grader, its residents are quick to point out that challenges and tragedies hit all kinds of communities.

Cindy Corley grew up in Walterboro and raised children here. She owns Old Bank Christmas & Bakery on East Washington Street in downtown.

Corley remembers being young and knowing all of the merchants in town and that everyone looked out for each other. She said the community has maintained that feel, so “when something happens that’s bad, we all think we dropped the ball.”

“I don’t know how this happened,” she said. “It’s tragic. It’s sad. It’s heartbreaking. I wish I could go to each one of her family members and give them a hug and tell them how sorry we are and that we love them, but it wouldn’t make them feel better.”

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Source: USA Today