The suicide of 12-year-old Celeste Wills in April of last year left the community searching for a reason, an explanation.
What could lead a Robert Smalls Middle School sixth-grader to take her life? What could make a young girl who had dreams of going to New York University and becoming a writer suddenly feel she had no way out?
Celeste left no note behind to explain why.
Then, the community seemed to get their answer: bullying.
In the hours after her death, a school friend told Celeste's parents that their daughter was picked on at school.
Word spread quickly that bullying led Celeste to commit suicide. Hundreds changed their Facebook profile pictures to an anti-bullying slogan. Others posted below newspaper stories, worried about this newly exposed culture of bullying in a local school. Thousands called on the Beaufort County School District to fix the problem.
Now, on the one-year anniversary of her death, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office has completed its investigation.
The findings: No evidence was uncovered to suggest bullying was a factor in her death.
The Sheriff's Office looked into several instances of "confrontation" during its investigation -- as well as conducting an analysis of Wills' electronic devices -- but found no interactions it would define as bullying, according to the report.
"It is difficult to pinpoint a specific instance or circumstance" that could have led to her death, the report concluded. Rather, it "could have been a conglomeration of issues."
The family declined to comment for this story.
Regardless of the findings, local leaders agree that Celeste put a face on an important issue that ignited a community.
- The Beaufort County School District has received more than 2,000 reports of bullying and other school-related issues after the creation of an app on all school-issued tablet devices -- a sign that alertness is up and tolerance down, officials say.
- The Sheriff's Office has implemented more focused anti-bullying curriculum taught through its Community and School Resource Officer programs.
- State representatives, led by state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, have taken the anti-bullying message statewide with a task force that is investigating ways to address the problem.
"Our community has really stepped up," Erickson said.
A GIRL WITH A FUTURE
The discussions began just hours after Celeste's suicide.
As friends and family began arriving at the Wills' Shell Point residence to express their condolences, one friend mentioned that Celeste had been picked on by two other students, according to the police investigation.
Her parents, Dale and Clarissa, were devastated by this news, according to investigators' report -- they had "no idea" she was grappling with such a problem.
By nearly all accounts, she was a happy girl with loads of talent and few troubles.
Like her mother, the owner of a Beaufort tattoo parlor, Celeste was an artist who loved to draw. Sketching in notebooks, she fashioned faces and portraits of people with large, emotive eyes in the anime style.
Writing was part of her creative outlet, too, and filled several notebooks that police found in her room with her own poems and stories. Many were dark, dealing with children near her age who were struggling with the complexities of growing up, according to the investigation.
There was time for reading as well. Curling up in an alcove in her parent's bedroom, she could spend hours devouring books. In the days after her death, her family turned the reading nook into a shrine, filled with flowers in hues of purple and blue -- her favorite colors -- and photographs of Celeste.
The girl in the pictures showed no signs of trouble either. There was only the affable girl that everyone loved, a flop of dark hair brushing her left eye. A sweet smile stretching below a pair of big, brown eyes.
At school, Celeste shined, too, playing viola in the Robert Smalls Middle School string program.
An honors student, she earned top grades and was in the school's leadership program. As part of the academy, she worked in the school office, helping staff with general tasks.
She did so the day before her death.
"She seemed happy and was helpful, as she always was," then principal Denise Smith told investigators.
When interviewed by police, neither Smith, Wills' parents nor her two older sisters said they saw any signs of bullying or depression. Her sister, in eighth grade at Robert Smalls at the time, said she did not know of any problems with bullying at the school or on the bus.
Celeste usually sat by herself on the bus. Earbuds plugged in, she listened to music by her favorite band, My Chemical Romance, and let the world slip by outside the window.
NO EVIDENCE OF BULLYING
That is not to say Celeste wasn't picked on.
One of the nation's foremost bullying experts said that the pervasiveness, or trendiness, of the word "bullying" makes it difficult to distinguish actual bullying from regular peer-to-peer conflict.
"What we find is that there is a lot of teasing and name calling among peers in school," said Dorothy Espelage, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois. "But if we call that bullying, then everything is bullying and everyone is bullied."
Espelage and Sheriff's Office spokesman Capt. Bob Bromage said there are three key factors that differentiate bullying from teasing: repetition, intent and a power imbalance.
While one student's name frequently surfaced as someone who may have bullied Celeste, the Sheriff's Office found that not to be the case. The student was described as "indiscriminately antagonistic" but not a bully.
In one instance, the student called Celeste's answer "dumb" during class, according to the report.
In another, the student told Celeste to "sit down" after she defended another student who had been teased.
Several of Celeste's friends said she always stood up for others who were being picked on, according to the police investigation.
That's how Rebecca Gordon, who lived down the street from the Wills, remembers Celeste.
Gordon, who moved to Virginia with her family in 2012, was thankful when Celeste and one of her sisters took Gordon's daughter, Chloe, under their wing shortly after they moved to town in 2010.
"Chloe started having trouble with some older boys on the bus," Gordon said. "And from that moment on, Celeste always had Chloe sit near her and she wouldn't let another child touch a hair on Chloe's head."
Chloe, in kindergarten at the time, greeted Celeste and her sister with a hug every morning, Gordon said.
Now, several years later, Chloe still talks of them and was devastated when she found out her friend and protector had committed suicide.
Gordon said Celeste has affected her parenting style, too.
"I have tried so hard to teach Chloe and her brothers to always uplift their peers, and to always be a friend and a role model for others to look up to."
'MAKING A DIFFERENCE'
The Sheriff's Office also completed an in-depth analysis of Celeste's cell phone, tablet, computer and social media accounts. While many of her postings showed signs of "inner turmoil," there was no attainable evidence of cyber-bullying, according to the report.
Several students said they had noticed that Celeste had become withdrawn in the last week before her death but didn't know why.
She no longer played her viola during down time in her strings class, which was unusual for her. When the teacher asked why, Celeste said she kept "messing up" and was frustrated, according to the report.
But the tell-tale signs of a student who is bullied, depressed or having suicidal thoughts -- drops in grades, cutting class, destroying personal items -- weren't there, say those around her.
Although the community is now at a loss to understand why Celeste took her life, there is at least a little consolation that greater awareness and positive changes to combat bullying have resulted.
For instance, earlier this school year at Bluffton Middle School, one sixth-grade student was tormenting another for weeks -- calling him names, shoving him as they walked down the hall and pushing him into walls and desks.
A friend of the student who was being bullied started to worry, said principal Pat Freda. He saw how upset his friend was, how frustrated he was starting to get and was worried he might boil over.
That's when he submitted a report on the district's bullying app. Embedded on all students' school-issued tablet devices, the new app allows students to anonymously report instances of bullying. It debuted last year not long after Celeste's death was front page news.
The app has had more than 2,000 hits. Previously, students could report bullying through a hotline and email address -- outlets that produced only about 10 hits in each of the past few years, according to Gregory McCord, head of student services at the school district.
The app proved to be a life line for the bullied sixth-grader.
"When our assistant principal approached the kid who was being bullied, he just fell apart," Freda said. "He said that this has been going on for so long and was so upset and hurt, and he didn't know what to do."
The two boys were brought in to discuss the situation. They went to counseling through the school. And their parents were brought in to make sure they knew what was going on and could offer the proper support at home, Freda said.
Most importantly, the abuse stopped.
"A lot of kids don't talk about what's going on at school, and knowing they now have an outlet helps wards off the possibilities of depression and self-harm and other things like that," Freda said. "In this incident, the app really worked for us."
Reports are coming from both students who have been bullied and those who have witnessed bullying. Parents are also able to submit reports, McCord said, which has fostered more community involvement.
"Now do those high volume numbers mean bullying is on the rampage? No, it just means awareness and reporting is up," McCord said.
Some reports have been false. Others have alerted staff to drugs, alcohol and even a weapon on one school campus. And several have tipped off schools to planned fights, allowing them to be headed off.
"This (Celeste Wills) case brought a lot more public awareness," Bromage said. "And although bullying was not revealed as contributing to this unfortunate situation, it did bring a lot of attention to bullying."