He was homebound due to threat of 'neighborhood violence' but allowed at graduation; RPS wants policy changes

Posted at 6:17 PM, Jul 27, 2023

RICHMOND, Va -- Richmond Public Schools is proposing new policies on how students are approved for graduation participation following concerns from some school board members about why Shawn Jackson was allowed to attend Huguenot High School's commencement.

Jackson, 18, was shot and killed outside the Altria Theater on June 6, 2023, after he had just received his diploma during the ceremony.

Amari Pollard, 19, has been indicted on a first-degree murder charge in Jackson's death, meaning prosecutors believe the killing was premeditated.

Jackson's stepfather, Renzo Smith, was also shot and killed during the incident.

Five other people were shot and survived, and at least 12 more people were injured during the aftermath, police said.

Prosecutors and police have not said who, if anyone, will be charged in the shootings of the six other people. However, Richmond Police said they considered Smith's homicide case to be "cleared," despite no one currently facing charges in his death.

“I think it'll have an impact on me for the rest of my life," Latisha Carson, who attended the graduation to support her nieces and witnessed the chaos, said. “Innocent people were hurt. Innocent peoples’ lives have been changed since June 6.”

Since the shooting, school board members, including Jonathan Young, Kenya Gibson, and Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed, have questioned why Jackson was allowed to attend the in-person graduation considering he was on homebound services at the time and not physically attending school.

“Information that has been provided to date is inadequate and does not address yours truly’s questions," Young said in an interview with CBS 6.

RPS has not publicly confirmed exactly why Jackson was on homebound, citing student privacy laws.

But according to an email from September 2022, obtained by CBS 6, a school employee wrote part of the reason was due to "the threat of neighborhood violence stemming from his association with another student that was involved in a crime."

According to a search warrant affidavit filed in Richmond Circuit Court, police said the shooting was carried out over an "ongoing feud that Shawn Jackson had with several individuals" tied to a shooting in 2020 in which a person was killed by "associates of Jackson."

The document showed that following the graduation day shooting, someone on social media wanted to "light up" Jackson's mother's home, and police believed it was a credible threat "targeting the family of Shawn Jackson."

At the time of the graduation, an RPS spokesperson said there were "no reported safety concerns" associated with Jackson's attendance.

“I'm encouraging my colleagues, pleading with them, to increase the scope relevant to what warrants a threat assessment team review relevant to the awfulness that unfolded at the Altria Theater," Young said.

A spokesperson for Richmond Public Schools said a threat assessment was not conducted before Jackson was approved for graduation, because again, "there were no reported safety concerns at that time."

CBS 6 obtained RPS' internal investigation into the shooting, which showed that a school faculty member, acting as the designee of Huguenot's principal, was the one to approve Jackson's participation.

But RPS' review also found that the "district does not currently have a consistent approach to assessing whether students should attend graduation in person" and needs a "clearer and more rigorous protocol to make these decisions going forward."

RPS is now recommending new policies that would set guidelines for these determinations, including a process to escalate "particularly complicated cases" to a district administration official.

The district also wants to require that principals "personally review and sign off on all graduation participants."

The administration's goal is to have those requirements enshrined in the school board policy by October 1.

Carson said she supported the proposed changes from RPS.

“It’s important that everyone’s safety is taken into consideration," Carson said. “Now, we do understand that we can't control everything, and we can't control the mindset of others. But what we do know is, if we have someone at risk, we have to take the necessary approach to protect not only the student but also everyone else involved.”

Carson added that she hopes parents' voices are still included in the decision-making process.

"They should hold a panel. It shouldn't just be a one-to-two-people decision. It should be the child, as well as the parent, as well as RPS leaders," Carson said.

Harris-Muhammed has previously called for a third-party investigation into the events and decisions leading up to the shooting, and Young said he supported that idea.

"Sometimes you uncover information that's just not pretty, and it's not flattering relevant to the district. But if you're unprepared or unwilling as a public servant to prioritize the truth and objectivity above all else, you darn well don't belong in that seat," Young said.

CBS 6 checked with the surrounding school districts, and each said they do not have formal policies on graduation approvals for homebound students. They said decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and typically handled between the school principal and the involved family.

FOIA Transparency:

CBS 6 requested RPS' internal review of the Huguenot graduation shooting.

RPS provided the document but redacted the recommendation stating that RPS should "develop a clear protocol for determining whether a student should participate in a graduation ceremony" and all following information about why RPS needs a "clearer and more rigorous protocol."

RPS also redacted the recommendation stating, "require principals to personally review and sign off on all graduation participants using the above-mentioned protocol" and all following information.

"Those portions have been redacted because they contain identifiable student information, exempt from disclosure under Va. Code § 2.2-3705.4(A)(1)," a FOIA officer said when asked for the reasoning for redacting those recommendations.

CBS 6 obtained, through a source, an unredacted copy of the recommendations in the report. With the exception of one sentence, there was no other identifiable student information in either recommendation. However, that information was redacted in the original document provided by RPS.

CBS 6 also requested emails following the June 6 shooting related to Shawn Jackson being on homebound. There were 120 pages of responsive records, but RPS withheld all 120 pages citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and state code 2.2-3705.4(1).

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