Family: Bullying led to 11-year-old's suicide
HAMPTON CO., SC (WTOC) - The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is investigating the shooting death of an 11-year-old Hampton County girl.
Family members said the sixth grader committed suicide Wednesday after being bullied at her Hampton County School District 1 elementary school.
Toni Rivers was 11-year-old who was full of life and loved being outside, family members said.
"She was so energetic," said Brandy Rivers-Dixon, Toni's aunt. "Never sat down, never. She was born 2-pounds, 4-ounces, so she's always been a fighter, fighting from the moment she entered this world."
Maria Petersen, Toni's aunt, said Toni came home from school Wednesday and shot herself after telling her "five of her little friends that she just couldn't do this anymore, and she was going home and she was killing herself."
"We go out to Toni's home in the country thinking that there'd been an accident, you know?" Petersen said. "And when we get there, we find out that it wasn't an accident, and it was the result of Toni not being able to handle it anymore."
A Hampton County Sheriff's Office incident report said deputies were dispatched to a home on Melvin Circle for an attempted suicide at 4:19 p.m. Wednesday after Toni's 14-year-old sister called 911. Deputies found Toni lying on her back with a gunshot wound from a small caliber rifle. The report states the shooting happened around 2:30 p.m.
Robert "Red" Thomas, Toni's stepdad, said the family shoots, and the gun Toni used was hers. However, he said the family stores their guns and bullets separately and away from the children, and he said Toni never used or touched them without the family knowing before Wednesday.
Emergency medical services transported Toni to MUSC Health in Charleston by helicopter.
Petersen said Toni and the family spent 72 hours in the hospital before doctors told the family, "she wasn't here anymore."
Amy Thomas, Toni's mom, said she'd been in contact with her daughter's school about the bullying for about two months. Her cellphone call log shows she made four calls to her daughter's school on Monday, Oct. 23, two days before the shooting.
"Obviously, we're devastated beyond any type of words, and we're angry," Petersen said. "We're angry at a school system that failed that little girl, failed this family, and failed this community."
The family said six other parents with children in Toni's sixth grade class have agreed to be interviewed and agreed to have their children interviewed by SLED as part of the investigation.
"My baby's gone, but everyone's got confidence now, you know, they can stand up to her," Amy said.
SLED's public information officer Thom Berry confirmed the department is investigating, but said he couldn't say if it was a death or criminal investigation. He also couldn't confirm or deny if other parents are being interviewed as part of investigation, but said the agency looks at the issues surrounding any child death it is called in to investigate.
"We go where the investigation takes us," Berry said.
Miranda Cook's daughter, Kyra, was one of Toni's friends and classmates. Her daughter was one of the five Toni told about the suicide on Wednesday, but by the time Kyra told her mom about Toni's comment, it was too late. Cook is also one of the parents being interviewed by SLED.
"I've had to contact the school on several occasions because of the bullying at school," Cook said. "The child still continues to bully, making comments [like] 'you're ugly.' She (Kyra) actually got shoved into a bookcase and had her head hurt, and when she came home, she told me it was the same child that had been bullying her. But she said, 'Oh, I'm sorry,' as soon as she as she realized she was hurt."
Cook said the bullying has been ongoing for a year with the school and district taking minimal action to prevent or stop it.
"It's been a regular thing since last year," she said. "It's taken care of, and it won't happen for awhile. Then, it'll be a few weeks, and she'll come home saying she's bullied again."
Both Cook and Toni's family said they want bullies to be held accountable and punished for their actions.
Hampton County School District 1 Superintendent Ronald Wilcox said he was advised by the district's legal team not to comment on the situation or the family's allegations. He instead released this statement expressing the district's condolences:
"It is with heavy hearts that the Hampton One family mourns the loss of one of our students. Our sympathy and prayers go out to the family and friends affected by this tragedy. Counselors have been made available and will continue to be available to offer any needed support. Student matters are confidential and we believe it would be inappropriate to comment further on this tragic incident."
The family is holding a candlelight vigil on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at the Wade Hampton High School football field to share their story in hopes of preventing this kind of tragedy for another community and family.
"Pray that other people will see this and speak to their children about being a bully and about how words hurt they hurt," Petersen said. "Like how Toni saved five lives on Sunday, that we'll be able to help save one."
Toni was an organ donor, and gave five people life-saving transplants.
The family said 2,000 people are expected to attend Sunday's vigil.
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