Parents of deceased student petition Beaufort County schools to stop bullying

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comMay 16, 2014 

  • To get involved

    • See story online to access the petition urging the Beaufort County School District to do more to stop bullying.
    • The Bullying Awareness Movement will hold a rally from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Wardle Family YMCA gym in Port Royal.

The parents of Celeste Wills, a Robert Smalls Middle School sixth-grader who killed herself April 30 after some say she was bullied, have started a petition on Change.org.

The petition, started Wednesday morning reads: "To the Beaufort County School District, protect our children better from bullying."

It had 278 signatures as of 5 p.m. Friday -- most of them from students and parents in Beaufort County, according to the signatures and comments on the petition.

Dale and Clarissa Wills are seeking 500 signatures before they present the petition to the school district. Signers must provide their names and addresses.

The district is assisting the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office in the investigation of 12-year-old Celeste Wills' death from what authorities say was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The investigation continues, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Sgt. Robin McIntosh said late Thursday.

To date, the investigation has not found evidence to substantiate specific incidents of bullying, McIntosh said. However, investigators are awaiting the results of the forensic analysis of three electronic devices collected from the Wills' home, she added.

Celeste Wills wrote a blog to help those suffering from depression, bullying and suicidal thoughts, her parents and friends said. However, posts leading up to her death indicated she, too, was struggling with those problems.

Her parents said they were not aware she was bullied until after her death, when friends came forward to say she was frequently teased.

In the days after their daughter's death, Dale and Clarissa Wills said they did not blame the school or district. But Clarissa Wills said their feelings have shifted, and they now think the school could have done more.

A brief introduction to the petition says, "Our school systems are not doing everything possible to protect our children, maybe if we keep pushing them we will get what we want."

Clarissa Wills said she would like to see smaller classes, so teachers can get to know their students better and be more aware of the interactions among them.

"I started the petition because many kids and parents feel that Robert Smalls is an unsafe school," Wills said in a text message Friday afternoon. "We feel there are too many students per teachers. ... The school has an epidemic right now that they need to address, and it's bullying."

County schools spokesman Jim Foster said the district won't know what role, if any, bullying played in Celeste Wills' death until the investigation is completed. But he added that anything that helps raise awareness about bullying is positive since every school in the country struggles with it.

"This is something that we really don't want to be defensive about, because it is something that every school everywhere knows is a challenge, and we all can always improve how we address it," Foster said.

The district has many tools to address bullying, he said, but continues to re-evaluate its programs. It also encourages community members and parents with ideas to reach out to the district.

A group of local families, including the Wills, hope to get that conversation started. They have created a group called the Bullying Awareness Movement and are holding a rally from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Wardle Family YMCA gym in Port Royal.

"We want to pull together all our children and make a difference," said rally organizer Regina Shockey on the petition. "That difference is going to start with the district and working with groups. ... We have ideas and we are reaching out for (the) district and school officials to allow us to help."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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