WALTERBORO, S.C. – Law enforcement officials announced Friday that fifth-grader Raniya Wright died days of natural causes, and no one will be charged in the 10-year-old's death.
But Raniya's family disputed the results of the weekslong investigation after she fought with another student March 25 in an elementary school classroom and complained of a headache. Raniya died in a Charleston hospital two days later.
Frustration has grown in the three weeks since the Raniya's death as her family and community members awaited answers.
Duffie Stone, the solicitor of the 14th Judicial Circuit, was the first to speak Friday morning at a press conference to address Raniya's death, appearing with the coroner and sheriff of Colleton County.
Investigators said it took weeks working with a team of medical professionals to finish forensic tests and provide a complete picture of the case.
Stone said he met with forensic pathologists and others who worked with Raniya while she was at the Medical University of South Carolina. He said those doctors found Raniya died of natural causes related to a congenital medical condition called arteriovenous malformation, or AVM.
Colleton County Sheriff R.A. Strickland described the altercation at Forest Hills Elementary School as a "slap fight." He said Raniya was involved in the altercation for five to 10 seconds on March 25, and there was no evidence the fight was connected to her death.
Colleton County School District Superintendent Franklin Foster, speaking Friday afternoon after learning of the law enforcement investigation findings, called the altercation "an incident that happened between them where it was a scuffle and that there was some slapping and some pushing and some shoving."
Teachers stepped in at least twice throughout the day to warn both students about their behavior, Foster said.
The other student involved in the fight has been placed in an alternative learning setting and will not return to Forest Hills Elementary for the remainder of the semester, Foster said.
Investigators conducted interviews with the teacher as well as 15 students who were in the classroom that day.
They said a teacher was in the classroom when the fight happened and pulled the two girls apart within a few seconds of the start of the fight.
"No one from our staff was reacting to anything except for science and truth," said Maj. Jason Chapman, one of the lead investigators on the case.
Following the altercation, the teacher solicited help from an assistant principal who was nearby. According to investigators, the assistant principal removed Raniya from the classroom following the fight and walked her to the front office before retrieving the other student from the classroom and walking her to the front office.
Chapman said that at that time, neither student showed signs of injury and Raniya did not complain of a headache until about 10 minutes later.
Authorities said Raniya had a history of headaches since 2017 and had been to see a doctor for the symptoms 13 days prior to the school fight.
Strickland said a school resource officer was on campus when the fight occurred.
Family disputes investigative findings
Speaking on behalf of Raniya's mother, Ashley Wright, attorney Margie Pizarro said she believed there was more to investigate.
Pizarro said Wright hired her own private investigator who interviewed students who were at the school when the fight occurred. She said the private investigator's interviews revealed an extensive history with the particular student over the past two years, calling Raniya names, bullying her and invoking violence. A student interviewed in the private investigation said the student in question earlier in the day made comments about wanting to fight Raniya, Pizarro said.
Pizarro also said the private investigator's findings showed that Raniya was put into a headlock, punched in the head several times and thrust into a filing cabinet and a bookshelf before a brick-sized object fell onto her head, all while the substitute teacher stood by and other students were left to intervene, she said.
But other evidence suggests Raniya was the primary aggressor, both in the March 25 fight and in prior instances with the same student, Chapman said.
Chapman said students saw Raniya get up from her seat, walk across the classroom and punch the other girl in the back of the head. That sparked a scuffle and the other student put their hands on Raniya's back and head as she was reared into the bookshelf near the teacher's desk, Chapman said.
The items on the bookshelf, including dust marks, were taken into account to show that Raniya's head never hit the furniture, Chapman said.
Raniya had rare congenital condition Investigators said there were no signs of external trauma on Raniya's body immediately following the fight.
Pathologists conducted tissue tests to determine whether there was any internal trauma connected to the fight. Those tests did not show any evidence that that altercation contributed to her death.
Due to those test results, no charges will be filed in connection with Raniya's death.
Authorities said Raniya's hemorrhaging was the result of a birth defect and not related to the fight.
"These hemorrhages can take place just about any time," Stone said. "The fight did not have anything to do with the passing of Raniya. It did not have anything to do with the rupture."
An AVM is a tangle of arteries and veins which, according to the National Institutes of Health, can hamper the delivery of oxygen to the brain or spinal cord because of abnormal blood flow. They can range from a fraction of an inch to more than 2.5 inches in diameter.
People who have them are born with them, said Dr. Sharon Webb, a vascular neurosurgeon with Bon Secours St. Francis Health System.
What happens is that arteries pump blood into veins, which aren’t made to handle the pressure, she said. They become distended, especially if on the brain, and can then rupture and bleed, she said.
AVMs are rare, occurring in about one in 100,000 people, Webb said.
When AVMs rupture, symptoms can include seizures, bad headaches, weakness and coma, she said.
Dr. Aquilla Turk III, a neuroradiologist with Prisma Health-Upstate, said AVMs are challenging because they aren’t usually discovered until they rupture, or cause a problem, such as headaches, seizures, or trouble with vision or speech.
They are fatal about 10 percent of the time, Webb said.
'I miss my daughter'
Family members said Raniya was an active child, healthy and happy, showing no signs of serious medical issues.
Outside the Sheriff's Office, Ashley Wright, spoke of her the memories of her daughter, who loved basketball, church and her family. She said hearing the autopsy results was the first time she learned of the congenital defect.
"I miss my daughter. I'm not able to hold my daughter again (or) kiss her. I'm not able for my child to go to prom, her first dance in middle school. She ain't going to be able to give me no (grandchildren)," Wright said. "I just want the answers that haven't been given since day one."
The morning of the fight, Wright said Raniya seemed healthy. Just a few days earlier, she was enjoying her brother's birthday party and could have played all night, she said.
"The pivotal question is: Did she know about this vascular issue they had found in this autopsy? The answer is no," Pizarro said.
Pizarro said stress and high blood pressure stemming from the scuffle could have easily been a contributing factor that led to Raniya's death that authorities are trying to downplay.
Conflicting views on bullying
Ashley Wright said there had been a long history of bullying involving the particular student involved in the fight. She said Raniya would come home to her and complain about the girl but did not want her mom to complain to the school out of fear of teasing.
Still, Ashley Wright said she went to the school to make a formal complaint at least once and also spoke with Raniya's teachers by phone several times, she said.
Chapman said the Sheriff's Office has no record or testimony of any prior complaints or inquiries about Raniya being bullied prior to her death. Foster also said there was no evidence in their records that Wright had brought up issues to the school before.
Follow Elizabeth LaFleur on Twitter: @eslafleur
Follow Daniel J. Gross on Twitter: @DanieljGross
This article originally appeared on The Greenville News: South Carolina 5th-grader in school fight died of natural causes; no charges will be filed