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School safety worries Richmond parents as students return to class

An adult and two children walk away
Crixell Matthews
An adult and two children leave Thursday's event with new backpacks. Several parents at the backpack giveaway reported worrying about their kids safety as classes resume. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

After a summer spent hanging out by the pool, Keshawn Oshinkoya is on the precipice of a big change: He starts 6th grade at Richmond’s Albert Hill Middle School next week.

“I'm feeling nervous and good about the school year because I'm going to a new school,” Oshinkoya said Thursday at a backpack giveaway sponsored by Attorney General Jason Miyares near Richmond’s Gilpin Court.

Stephanie Oshinkoya shares some of her son’s anxiety. She worries about her four children’s safety, three of whom are in Richmond Public Schools.

“It’s scary,” Stephanie Oshinkoya said. “You know, I sit at home and I think about it all day long. But I just put it in God's hands.” 

As students in Virginia return to the classroom, parents like Oshinkoya are reckoning with a spate of school shootings, like the May 24 killings in Uvalde, Texas.

Oshinkoya said she’d like to see more officers in schools, more bag checks and stricter enforcement of visitor policies. And then there are guns: “I don't think anyone should be able to walk around freely holding a gun,” she said.

Miyares held a private roundtable on school safety with community leaders and politicians before emerging to distribute several dozen backpacks to students on Thursday as TV cameras and photographers looked on.

Speaking to reporters afterward, the Republican, who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, didn’t directly address a question on calls for stricter gun laws. Instead, Miyares pointed to the General Assembly’s approval of additional funding for school resource officers early this year as part of a solution to address violence in schools. He argued an ongoing teenage mental-health crisis had been exacerbated by virtual schooling during the pandemic. 

Miyares said state and local law enforcement wouldn’t draw from the same playbook that resulted in a botched response in Uvalde, where law enforcement waited more than an hour to engage the shooter.

“Their training is very different than what happened in Uvalde,” he said. “They know not to wait, not to stop, not to set up a perimeter, not to determine who's in charge, but to actively engage and get it resolved.”

Richmond School Board member Mariah White, who joined Miyares’ Thursday roundtable, said she wanted to see more funding for programs to address gun violence and mental health, as well as the full reopening of the Calhoun Community Center near Gilpin Court, which is currently undergoing repairs.

“This is a safe haven for [students],” she said about the community center.

Jim Nolan, a spokesman for Mayor Levar Stoney, said the city plans to spend $8 million of its federal pandemic funding on renovating the center and restoring its pool, which has been closed since 2013.

Ashley Cook said she stopped by the event with her two children after a Miyares staffer saw her on her porch and let her know they were giving away backpacks. She said she’s ready for her rising 5th- and 6th-grade children to go back to school but worried about the system’s faltering  standardized test scores and her children’s safety.

She wanted to see more security personnel at schools — including at elementary schools — tighter security to get into the buildings and stricter gun laws. 

“I pray for them every morning when they go to school,” Cook said. “Anybody can get their hand on a gun.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.