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Police presence increased in Richmond schools following Uvalde shooting

Sign in front of school building
Richmond Public Schools is increasing its police presence temporarily. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, near Mosby Court, had the highest number of student arrests in RPS during the 2019-2020 school year. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Several students, parents and teachers are objecting to a new policy at Richmond Public Schools to temporarily increase police presence on campuses in response to a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, earlier this week.

Superintendent Jason Kamras announced on Tuesday in an email to parents that he’s implementing “enhanced searches” of students when they arrive at school through Friday. Kamras said he’s also requested that the Richmond Police Department increase its patrols around district school buildings.

“To our students, families, and staff, please know that I take your safety extremely seriously. It is truly my number one priority, as both superintendent and a father,” Kamras said.

Kamras’ announcement also came just two days after Richmond police reported they confiscated a firearm at the Franklin Military Academy, a public military high school located in Church Hill.

However, multiple teachers and parents are fighting against these policy changes, saying they’ll only further traumatize students and staff.

Rebecca Field teaches at John Marshall High School one the northside and has two children in Richmond Public Schools system.

“I was very much against enhanced searches this morning. I'm very much against police in schools,” Field said. “I don't think it made anybody feel safer. I think the majority of my students do not feel safe when there's a police officer near them.”

Other parents agree, including Becca Duval, whose children go to Clark Springs Elementary near Hollywood Cemetery. She said the new policies are more reactionary than helpful.

“I feel like it's sort of an act of desperation,” Duval said. “We really need counselors and therapy dogs and community, but we get cops instead.”

Returning to school the day after the Texas shooting made Taylor Whitfield, who attends Thomas Jefferson High School in the West End, uneasy. She said that feeling was not made any better by the news that there will be more police at school.

“With everything surrounding the police recently, I feel less safe with more police,” Whitfield said.

Some educators, however, said they think the superintendent was right to increase security measures at Richmond schools. Katina Harris, president of the Richmond Education Association, applauded Kamras’ decision.

“I feel like the measures are being put in place to take steps to ensure that our students are safe,” Harris said.

The presence of police officers at public schools has exploded since the shooting at Columbine High School. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, while only 1% of schools were policed in 1975, 48% are policed today. Research on the effectiveness of police presence in deterring school shootings is inconclusive, according to a 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service on school resource officers. However, there is evidence that the presence of police officers increases arrests of children in school, which in turn contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to the ACLU, students with disabilities are 10 times more likely to be arrested at school than other students, and Black students are arrested by school resource officers at a rate 3 times higher than white students.

According to Sarah Abubaker, associate director of outreach and advocacy at Richmond Public Schools, Kamras requested that police officers already in the area patrol outside school buildings — not inside — more frequently during the next week.

The “enhanced searches” that Kamras mentioned in his letter are nothing new to students in the district. According to Abubaker, students have been routinely searched since the beginning of the school year. Previously, those searches typically took place at each middle and high school in the district on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Under Kamras’ direction, they will instead take place everyday this week.

Elementary school students are not subject to searches.

Richmond Public Schools’ Director of Safety Mauricio Tovar said staff doesn’t need students' permission to search their belongings when they’re on campus.

Field, the John Marshall teacher, said these searches are an invasion of privacy and send the wrong message to students.

“I do not believe that's appropriate … I really don't,” Field said. “My students go through metal detectors every day, and their bags are searched. And I believe that it criminalizes kids before they even come into the building. And regardless of the age of the child, I think that creates trauma.”

Harris, the REA president, said that the discomfort is worth it — if it can prevent another tragedy.

“Looking into the children's backpacks to make sure that students and staff are safe is not a negative thing,” Harris said.

At Richmond schools, students’ belongings are searched by care and safety associates. These staff positions are open to law enforcement officers, but also social workers.

Abubaker said the searches are conducted at random.

“If they're going to do a random search of school, the CSA will say, ‘OK, every fifth student that walks in the door, we're gonna want them to do a general search.’ This is not like a TSA kind of thing,” Abubaker said. “They’re objective randomizations. Also RPS is 90% minorities.”

Whitfield, the RPS student, said she’s observed Black students being treated more harshly than other students whose bags are searched.

“I do notice that they take stuff from them more,” said Whitfield, who is white. “I came through with a bunch of candy in my bag, but the same day another student of color got their candy taken away because it was ‘too much’ and that ‘they could be selling it.’”

Despite the uncertainty and fear that students and staff said they were feeling this week, classes and tests, including the Standards of Learning tests, were not delayed the day after the Texas shooting.

Field said that’s setting up her students and children to fail.

“I just think it proves that we're not looking out for the mental health of our kids,” Field said. “I just wish that we had some time to digest all of this as, you know … as teachers and as kids, instead of being pushed.”

Both Field and Duvall said instead of increasing police presence in schools, the district should invest in mental health services for its students.

“They need hugs, they need a community that puts its money where its mouth is and pays for people who care about their safety and mental health and surviving a crisis like this,” Duval said.

This year, the RPS’ budget includes $4,031,542 for security services. During that time the district can spend $3,993,804 on social worker services.