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Five guns in three years: How Richmond educators think about school safety

An illustration of two students walking past a 'No Weapons Allowed" sign.
(Illustration/photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

This story is part of the series "Another Way: How one Virginia city reckons with gun violence." During the past four months, VPM News reporters have spoken with city and school officials, support organizations, community members, and the family and friends of slain young people in Richmond. This is what they learned.

Five firearms have been recovered on Richmond Public School properties during the past three years, according to information obtained by VPM News through a Freedom of Information Act request. Those incidents happened at five different schools: Franklin Military Academy, Armstrong High School, River City Middle School, Huguenot High School and the Richmond Technical Center.

The schools affected by the presence of these firearms are spread across the city, with two in the East End, one in Northside and two in South Richmond. According to Katina Harris, who teaches at Thomas C. Boushall Middle School, there’s a lot of work to be done to address children’s access to firearms across the district, as well as the impulse to bring them to school.

“It's a very scary thing for everybody. But I also think it's going to take all of us to change some of the ways that these things are happening,” Harris said.

RPS has instituted several interventions intended to prevent people from bringing firearms onto campuses, including metal detectors and bag searches at several schools.

While they appreciate the need for greater safety in schools, teachers like Harris and experts on gun violence in schools question some of the security practices, saying they affect the learning environment and children's sense of security. 

“I don't think you need the metal detectors for students to walk through — they’re very similar to a court or jail,” Harris said. “They’re not appropriate.”

Harris, who’s also a parent of RPS students, said she doesn’t object to searching children’s backpacks.

“As a parent, I would rather my child be safe than to say there should be nothing,” Harris said.

The use of these interventions is increasingly common, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education. But there also has been some progress in addressing the roots of school shootings across the country; mental health services in schools have risen recently. At the same time, the study found that nationwide reports of student bullying and harassment have decreased.

But even with these interventions, 93 school shootings during the 2020-’21 year resulted in 43 incidents where an individual died, despite most schools being remote for portions of the year due to the pandemic. Fifty of those incidents resulted in injuries.

According to Sam Brown, community safety coordinator for the city of Richmond, the rise in gun violence among children in Richmond reflects an increase in the number of firearms in Virginia.

“We have neighborhood violence that carries over into the schools, and we have to combat that any way we can,” Brown said. “We are seeing more guns.”

To address gun violence among some Richmond children, Brown said the Richmond Police Department has hosted several community events in the city’s public housing neighborhoods in an attempt to repair relationships between law enforcement and the communities most affected by gun violence.

“We're having these community events and that’s to get people back on track coming out of COVID. And letting people know that there is a sense of community, there are resources out there, different agencies that want to step up and help,” Brown said.

Brown added that the department and school district monitor students’ conduct online through laptops assigned by RPS as part of its strategy to prevent violence on and off campus.

“Each student has a computer,” Brown said. “If they're typing on the computer — talking about weapons, suicide, acts of violence or showing pictures that correspond with that as well — the school system gets an alert. They contact us, we follow up [and] we do a threat assessment.”

Sense of security

Odis Johnson, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, recently looked at data from the National Center for Education Statistics to better understand gun violence in schools. He found that during the past seven years, the number of guns being brought to schools decreased. But it wasn’t all good news.

“While fewer students are bringing guns to school, at least as far as the data are concerned, the incidents where guns are used end up causing more injury and death,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, exposing students to security measures like metal detectors, as well as the presence of Student Resource Officers, impact academic achievement and children’s sense of security.

“Oftentimes, punitive responses to child behavior will make things worse. It will make students less trustful of law enforcement. It creates this oppositional disposition toward law enforcement,” Johnson said. “That can only incite further misbehavior on the part of the kids or a lack of conversation, communication with law enforcement that could lead to preventative measures and strategies.”

Johnson and Jason Jabbari, a researcher at the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, found that punishments “have the effect of pushing students out of high school over time.” Their study found Black and Latino students are more likely to be sent to administrators for perceived misbehavior and more likely to receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts for similar behaviors.

Black and Latino students are also over-represented in schools with the most surveillance infrastructure, according to another study by Johnson and Jabbari that’s set to be published in the Journal of Criminal Justice.

Instead of investing in surveillance security measures, Johnson said schools should bolster mental health support for students.

“A safe school is a set of preventative strategies that make kids feel like they belong, increases their investment in school attachment,” Johnson said. “It meets the emotional and mental-health needs of students, and then it includes some common-sense security procedures to keep people who would cause those children harm from entering the building.”

But these interventions don’t address one of the root causes of the issue: easy access to firearms.

“What I think is more related than any of those things, is gun policy,” Johnson said. “There's really nothing that the school itself can do — or even the presence of those law enforcement officers in those schools. It's just totally unrelated to the amount of injury and deaths that [a] shooter can cause.”

There isn’t currently reliable data on how frequently firearms are brought onto school campuses, according to Dr. Jaclyn Schildkraut, interim executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, New York.

But there are concerns about the effectiveness of metal detectors in schools, said Schildkraut, who added that even those trained specifically to operate the machines have high failure rates.

In 2015, ABC News reported that Transportation Security Administration agents failed 95% of tests in which federal agents attempted to smuggle mock explosives and weapons into the airport. TSA reported last year that for every one million passengers that agents searched, 10 firearms were discovered.

There are metal detectors in all five of the city’s public high schools, according to Sarah Abubaker — who was associate director of advocacy and outreach with RPS at the time of an interview with VPM News, but has since left the position. If a student sets off a metal detector, Abubaker said, they are subsequently scanned with a handheld security wand. Some Richmond middle schools also are equipped with metal detectors, though they’re turned off. Middle schoolers, however, are subject to search when entering a school building.

“If you think that your school needs metal detectors, then address the underlying reason why it needs metal detectors,” said Schildkraut, though she pointed to lockdown drills as an effective intervention to prevent injuries and deaths due to gun violence at schools.

While emotionally difficult for children, Schildkraut said the drills are necessary as long as they’re conducted in a way that mitigates trauma as much as possible.

“It's very important that drills are being conducted in accordance with that best practice guidance,” Schildkraut said. “Because the goal of the drill is simply to build muscle memory — you're just training your body to perform a set of steps in a proper way or certain order if an emergency comes … . The more realistic that you make a drill and the more sensorial techniques that you introduce, the more that you are going to increase anxiety.”

Preventative measures at Richmond Public Schools

All age groups in Richmond Public Schools go through lockdown drills. Darrell Turner, who teaches at Martin Luther King Jr. Preschool, said the drills have a real impact on students.

“I've had children that are visibly shaken and upset,” Turner said. “That can be scary or traumatizing for a child that young, especially when they may not have the vocabulary or the words to express how they're feeling.”

However, Turner said he ultimately supports the drills to ensure the safety of his students.

“It's just something that we do have to prepare for, because you just never know when a child or even an adult may decide to bring [a firearm] to a school building,” Turner said.

Both Turner and Harris, the middle school teacher and parent, said they work to provide extra mental-health support to students when possible.

“All you can do is try your best to prevent some of these things from happening by building relationships with the students. So that if somebody needs some assistance, and they don't feel safe, that will be addressed,” Harris said. “I think the community around the schools may need some assistance from the city — from the mayor — to help and aid our families and our children in not only educating them about safety, but also just getting them what they need, meeting their needs, so that they don't have to come to schools with firearms.”

Read more stories from the series "Another Way: How one Virginia city reckons with gun violence.