Richmond Schools declines release of 'damning' investigation report into graduation shooting

Posted at 5:35 PM, Nov 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-10 20:33:51-05

RICHMOND, Va -- Richmond Public Schools declined to release a third-party investigative report into the mass shooting outside Huguenot High School's graduation on June 6, 2023, but some board members who reviewed it painted a grim picture of the findings.

“I’m definitely emotionally scarred for the rest of my life, because I have the visual in my mind, and I think about it daily," Latisha Carson, who witnessed the chaos of the shooting after attending her niece's Huguenot graduation commencement, said. "I think about the people that I helped off the ground that were trampled on before I even realized that someone was shot."

Graduate Shawn Jackson and his stepfather Renzo Smith were shot and killed after gunfire erupted in Monroe Park, moments after the ceremony concluded inside the Altria Theater.

Police said five more victims were shot and survived, and at least a dozen others were injured or trampled in the aftermath.

Richmond Police released limited specific details about the criminal investigation, including who had guns at the crime scene.

Police have only identified and charged Amari Pollard in connection to Jackson's death and have not announced criminal charges related to any of the other victims.

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."

Richmond School Board members also raised questions about Jackson's attendance at the graduation.

Richmond Public Schools confirmed Jackson was a homebound student, meaning he was learning virtually and was not permitted at school-sponsored activities per the district's homebound policy.

According to an email from September 2022 obtained by CBS 6, a school employee said Jackson was homebound partly due to "the threat of neighborhood violence stemming from his association with another student that was involved in a crime."

RPS said a threat assessment of Jackson's attendance at the ceremony was not conducted because there were "no reported safety concerns" at the time.

In July 2023, Superintendent Jason Kamras presented an internal investigation of the shooting to the school board, which identified gaps in homebound procedures and protocols. The internal report stated a school faculty member, acting as the designee of Huguenot's principal, was the one to approve Jackson's participation.

However, some school board members were not satisfied with Kamras' internal report, saying it lacked detail and conflicted with the information they collected on the day of the graduation and from other RPS staff.

So, during an August 2023 school board meeting, Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed proposed a third-party investigation of RPS' safety protocols, operations, and handling of all matters connected to the June 6 shooting.

Board members Mariah White, Kenya Gibson, Jonathan Young, and Stephanie Rizzi joined Harris-Muhammed in supporting the measure. Board members Liz Doerr, Cheryl Burke, and Dawn Page voted against an investigation. Board member Nicole Jones abstained from voting.

Sands Anderson was selected as the law firm to complete the investigation at a cost of $25,000.

On November 6, 2023, Sands Anderson delivered its report to the school board and superintendent behind closed doors.

“Do you think this report should be released to the public?” reporter Tyler Layne asked Carson.

“Absolutely. I think the report should be released to the public, because the public was affected," Carson responded.

CBS 6 submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the report, but RPS chose to withhold the document in its entirety, citing a FOIA exemption that protects attorney-client privilege.

How are school board members responding?

CBS 6 reached out to every school board member who read the report.

While they said they could not share information about the contents of the report, some used words like 'shocking,' 'disturbing,' and 'disappointing' to describe the findings.

“I don't fully have words to describe how damning a report this is," Richmond School Board member Jonathan Young said. "My jaw hit the floor. I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn't know how bad."

“The missteps that happened here are alarming," Richmond School Board member Kenya Gibson said. "At best, there is some negligence that needs to be addressed. At worst, we were misled."

Young and Gibson said the report revealed that RPS failed to follow its own procedures and prioritize safety.

They also said the initial internal report they received contained discrepancies from the third-party report.

“I can share with you that Richmond Public Schools, in my opinion, has real culpability in regard to what happened on June 6," Young said. "It is more than evident to this school board member that June the sixth could have been prevented."

“The district is just clearly not learning from its mistakes, and there appears to be a pattern of escalating failure," Gibson said.

In an email to CBS 6, board member Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed said she was in "total shock" after reading the report.

"My reaction is far from pleased. I am angry. I am disappointed in so many people in Richmond Public Schools and former staff of Richmond Public Schools. I am hurt, and I am still processing. The investigation of RPS operations is far from over. We have a systemic breakdown in our communication, expectations, and operations. What I just identified involves adults not children," Harris-Muhammed said.

Harris-Muhammed added she's even considering extending the scope of what the school board initially voted to have Sands Anderson investigate.

Reached by phone, board member Mariah White told CBS 6 that the report answered her questions and "covered some missing things."

Moving forward, White said she expected "transparency to the community" and "improvement in policies and procedures."

"The discussion is not over," White said.

School Board Chair Stephanie Rizzi told CBS 6 in an email she could not speak about the report at this time due to client-attorney privilege.

Board members Liz Doerr, Cheryl Burke, Dawn Page, and Nicole Jones did not respond to CBS 6's inquires. None of them voted to support the third-party investigation in the first place.

Will the report be released?

Moving forward, board members are split on if and how to release the report to the public.

Both Young and Gibson said they wanted the document released in its entirety.

"If you were one of those hundreds of persons that were in the park, and you heard the gunshots, and you ran for cover, we owe it to all those folks to release this report, so they have some appreciation for how Richmond Public Schools failed them," Young said.

"We have to publish this document in its entirety so that the public knows what the challenges and issues with our protocols are," Gibson said.

Harris-Muhammed said she supported releasing an executive summary to the public that doesn't list staff by their identities.

"The public must know in detail what happened regarding RPS operations and why our operations failed on so many levels," Harris-Muhammed said.

White said, "something will be coming to the public soon."

Carson said getting answers and understanding the full picture of what led up to the tragedy would be a critical piece to getting closure.

“Everyone who is responsible, that played a position in this needs to be accountable, and we just need to understand what took place and where the ball was dropped," Carson said.

CBS 6 requested a response from Superintendent Jason Kamras for this story, and district spokesperson Alyssa Schwenk replied, "We can't comment at this time."

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