Superintendent 'can't say definitively' if RPS bears responsibility in graduation shooting

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Posted at 7:03 PM, Aug 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-23 20:44:32-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said he's supportive of the school board's decision to task his administration with seeking a third-party investigation into the Huguenot graduation day shooting, which will look into the school district's decisions and processes leading up to the incident.

On June 6, graduate Shawn Jackson, 18, and his stepfather Renzo Smith were shot and killed outside the Altria Theater just after the Huguenot High School commencement ceremony. Five other victims were shot and survived, and at least twelve more people were hurt in the aftermath of the chaos, police said.

19-year-old Amari Pollard, who had an ongoing feud with Jackson according to police, is charged with premeditated murder in Jackson's death. But at this point, no one else is facing any criminal charges in connection to Smith or the many other shooting victims, and police have refused to answer why, adding the "truth will come out" in court.

“I welcome it. The more eyes on this, the better," Kamras said in an interview with CBS 6 Wednesday about the third-party scrutiny. “We aren’t perfect, and if we made mistakes, we’ve got to fix them and be better the next time for our kids. I actually think it's a great thing. I look forward to finding folks to do the work and then get it started."

The idea was spearheaded by 6th District representative Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed and approved by a majority of the board in a 5-2 vote during last week's school board meeting. Two members, Liz Doerr and Cheryl Burke, voted against the measure. Nicole Jones abstained from voting.

“We cannot, nor can the superintendent, police ourselves," Harris-Muhammed said during the meeting while introducing her proposal.

Kamras has already presented the board with an internal review of the incident, which included background information on the history of the student involved, summaries of security measures, corrective action plans, and recommended policy changes.

However, multiple board members said they were either skeptical of the findings or wanted more answers. One board member even accused Kamras of hiding information.

“We could’ve received more detailed reporting on the Altria incident," said School Board Chair Stephanie Rizzi during last week's meeting.

“We need to ensure that there is no negligence on the part of the district," said board member Kenya Gibson. "There are discrepancies between the summary document we received and some of the answers to the questions we got earlier on."

“It originated at the school. We do have people that were affected at that school, and they know how this started. It didn’t just start at graduation," said board member Mariah White. “What are we hiding?”

But Kamras has strongly pushed back against the assertion that his administration is withholding details and called White's comments "defamatory" toward his staff who have analyzed the incident and worked to gather information.

“I want to be absolutely clear. The administration, I am not hiding anything. Everything we have, I am giving to the board. Everything that can be public, I will make public," Kamras told CBS 6. "Again, my goal is to shine light on what happened so we can learn and get better. Period, end of story."

Specifically, the board is requesting a full review of graduation day security and operation protocols as well as the procedures for homebound students.

At the time of his graduation, Jackson was a homebound student, meaning he was not permitted on school grounds or at school-sponsored activities, according to homebound policy.

An internal email from September 2022 obtained by CBS 6 showed part of the reason Jackson was homebound was due to the "threat of neighborhood violence stemming from his association with another student who 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."

Because of his homebound status, some board members have questioned why Jackson was allowed to attend graduation.

“Would you say the school did have awareness that there was a safety concern associated with this student?” reporter Tyler Layne asked Kamras.

“Unfortunately, I can’t talk about kids given privacy information, so that one, I’m going to have to hold off on," Kamras responded.

In a previous statement, RPS said there were "no reported safety concerns" with the decision to approve Jackson's participation at the ceremony.

In Jackson's situation, RPS' internal report showed that a Huguenot school employee authorized Jackson's attendance at graduation on behalf of the principal. But moving forward, Kamras said he wants to tighten those protocols.

“We are digging into that. As I even shared with the board, I made some recommendations too about how we can be better on that, make sure principals review every single candidate themselves [and] sign off. If there are any questions, it gets elevated to our Chief of Secondary Education," Kamras said.

Kamras acknowledged there's a possibility that information may surface in a third-party investigation that RPS missed.

“Do you have any sense right now that RPS would even bear any responsibility in what unfolded?” Layne asked Kamras.

“I’m going to leave that one to the lawyers. I don’t believe so, but I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t say definitively," Kamras responded.

In October, Kamras must present two potential companies to complete the outside investigation. Board members have not yet identified a cost estimate for this effort.

Some of the questions raised by board members are part of the ongoing criminal and prosecutorial investigations being handled by Richmond Police and the Office of Commonwealth's Attorney Colette McEachin.

For example, board member Gibson has said in two public meetings that there's a possibility a gun made it into the Altria Theater.

"At the graduation, I have seen no evidence to ensure that a gun did not get into the Altria Theater through a side door," Gibson said during the August 14 school board meeting.

"Ms. Gibson, you have now repeatedly said publicly that there is no evidence that a weapon did not enter the Altria Theater. I want to remind this body and the public that the Chief of Police of the Richmond Police Department said publicly there is no evidence that there was a weapon in the theater," Kamras responded.

"What I heard [the police chief] say is that he didn't believe that a gun got into the theater. I have to be honest. That statement does not give me a lot of confidence. What we do know is that the police said there were four guns identified at the scene of the crime. They told us where two came from. They haven't told us where the other two came from. And until I hear where those other two guns came from, there is a possibility they were in the theater," Gibson responded.

This is what Richmond Police Chief Rick Edwards said in a video statement dated June 23: "We can confirm through our investigation that we don't believe that any guns were brought inside the Altria Theater."

CBS 6 followed up with Richmond Police to ask for clarification on whether Edwards' comment was an official confirmation that guns were not in the theater and what evidence led police to have this belief. CBS 6 also asked why police won't share where the other two guns involved in the shooting came from.

On August 16, RPD spokesperson Tracy Walker responded, "The details you have identified are part of the investigation and any additional public disclosure of information could impact the Commonwealth Attorney’s case. It is always our intent that all the facts about the incident come out in the John Marshall Courthouse."

Pollard's defense attorney Jason Anthony said in an interview on August 9 it was "tremendously concerning" that police will not disclose to whom two of the crime scene guns belonged.

Anthony said he also had questions about Jackson's homebound status and attendance at graduation, but answers would be forthcoming because there was "a school board member who has been very aggressive with respect to this."

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email to send a tip.

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