By Barney Blakeney
I had to think of Martin Luther King’s quote before starting to write this column – “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” I’ve been bothered ever since 10-year-old RaNiya Wright died after a March 25 altercation at her Walterboro elementary school. From day 1 the incident has been fraught with misinformation and conjecture. And since the fifth grader’s March 27 death, lost in the midst of it all that is the fact that one child is dead and we are destroying another.
For the past month folks in our community have stewed in the bitter juices of misinformation, mistrust, misunderstanding, denial and overzealous grandstanding. From Day 1 a lack of clarity and transparency has hidden truth. And I’m thinking much of that truth is being denied when it has appeared.
I can’t imagine the pain that comes with the death of one’s child. My mother experienced it at the accidental death of my 16-year-old twin sister. Mama always was pretty good at hiding her feelings. Years later as I began to consider the depths of pain mothers must feel at the loss of sons to gun violence, one mother said I couldn’t imagine how it feels to see a life carried by a mother for nine months taken in a few seconds. As a man, I can’t imagine that.
I only felt curiosity when I heard on the evening news that a 10-year-old child had been airlifted to the hospital after a fight at school. We live I an age where children now fight with weapons. I was curious about what had happened. As a reporter I knew I had to wait for accurate information about the incident to filter down. And I knew that in the meantime, a lot of misinformation would circulate.
What I didn’t know was that the incident would trigger so much venom. One of the first versions I heard was that RaNiya, who was a bully, had hit her head during the fight causing her to slip into a coma and finally, death. The source of that information, a hospital employee, was dubious, but I thought somewhat credible. I later realized that version was confusing. RaNiya was said to be the victim of bullying. I still don’t think we’ve gotten to the truth of that back and forth between the girls.
I think current concepts of bullying too often are misconstrued. I won’t here try to figure out all the thoughts behind what today is bullying. Suffice it to say that as a kid, there always seemed to be a schoolyard bully, that one kid who took advantage of others. I had a couple of them in my childhood. We were taught to stand up to bullies. It worked for me. Today bullying leads to death. What’s happened?
When the bullying issue emerged in the RaNiya Wright death, things became even more skewered. All people’s penned up passion about bullying was unleashed. School officials were blamed for inaction and a schoolyard fight between fifth grade girls that ended tragically became a legal battle.
As the furor heightened, I continued to sit on the story despite its national profile. This was the kind of story reporters wait for. But I thought there were too few facts, too much emotion to offer any accurate information about what really happened. I think reporters have an obligation to present stories that not only informs communities, but also helps them move progressively forward. The RaNiya Wright story was taking all the wrong turns, influenced by people rather than facts. Frustration and mistrust of schools seemed to direst the story.
And there was the financial factor. Lawyers got involved almost immediately. I’ve got a problem with legal resolutions to matters of right and wrong. The right thing to do often gets lost when lawyers focus on financial restitution. Don’t get me wrong, I think, people should be compensated for their loss due to negligence, incompetence and/or discrimination. But that doesn’t seem to be helping in our society – people get paid, but the problems persist. Shouldn’t the goal be eliminating the problem?
To her credit Walterboro Sen. Margie Bright Matthews tried to straighten out the developing mess, but got kicked to the curb. Soon after the ‘fight’ and RaNiya’s death, Matthews went on the senate floor to address some of the misinformation. What was being characterized as a ‘fight’ essentially was slapping and shoving that ended in seconds, she said. Since her attempt to explain the event, varying versions of the incident have emerged.
Let me tell you about witnesses’ versions of incidents. Two people can see the same thing and come away with two very different interpretations of that thing. Throw in the influence of adults and friends and the account a child offers could be very different from what actually occurred.
That brings me to my point about destroying the surviving child. It wasn’t long before I heard that some adult fools on Facebook were demonizing the surviving child, even to the point of calling the child a murderer. For me, that was the most despicable part of this whole sordid tragedy. I’ve experienced some garbage on Facebook, but that beats all.
As this tragedy unfolds, I don’t know that we’ll ever know, understand or accept the truth of what’s happened. But there is one truth I know – there is a child in our community who is being devastated by all this. Have we no compassion for that child? We should show love and compassion for the loss of RaNiya Wright, but shouldn’t we also show love and compassion for that child who now must live the rest of her life with all that has transpired? As we advocate restitution for RaNiya shouldn’t we also advocate counseling for that other mother’s child? Who are we if we allow the destruction of a second child in this tragedy?