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As Richmond students face trauma, school board rejects role to address mental health

“They are screaming for help.”
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Posted at 12:46 PM, Apr 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-22 12:46:33-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Students across Richmond have been feeling the weight of heavy times from teenagers dying from gun violence to a school that burned down. As children on all ends of the city process traumatic events, some parents and school leaders are calling for more mental health support.

Cleaning up the remnants of an Easter celebration and taking care of her little one kept Becca DuVal busy on Thursday morning as her two other children spent the day at school.

DuVal's kids are enrolled at William Fox Elementary, but they're currently learning at First Baptist Church after a fire destroyed Fox in February.

“It was trauma on top of trauma, and my kids didn't tolerate it well this time," DuVal said about the aftermath of the fire.

She explained the changes brought on first by the pandemic and then the blaze piled onto the long list of stressors her kids continue to face. DuVal said she's noticing it in their behavior.

“I called an emergency meeting with my daughter's teacher to say she's coming home so upset," DuVal said.

The Richmond mother of three said while she's overwhelmingly grateful to the folks at First Baptist Church for opening their doors to the Fox community, Sunday school classrooms are not the most ideal learning environments for young students.

"It's stressful for the kids, and it's stressful for the teachers," she said.

Additionally, DuVal said she wants to rely on the school system to address the needs of students in crisis, but after talking with counselors and educators, she believes resources and professionals are stretched thin.

“There weren't the supports in place that I had hoped that there would be in a trauma response," DuVal said. "We're getting these really explosive children coming home. It presents itself differently in every person, and you've got really withdrawn children, and you've got kids that are disassociating."

For those reasons, DuVal has been pushing for a Chief Wellness Officer to be hired within Richmond Public Schools.

It's a new role that an RPS spokesperson said would be in charge of allocating resources pertaining to mental health, crisis intervention, and social and emotional learning. The coordinator would also be responsible for implementing programming that addresses mindfulness and coping techniques.

However, the position has never been filled because the Richmond school board rejected the appointee by Superintendent Jason Kamras during a March school board meeting. This came after the school board unanimously supported a budget in February that included funding for the role.

“We must listen to our children," said School Board Member Cheryl Burke. "They are screaming for help.”

Burke was one of four school board members, along with Liz Doerr, Dawn Page, and Nicole Jones, who said they recognize an urgent need to hire an expert to lead mental health efforts across the school district.

“To have that person in place would take care of that umbrella of meeting the needs of every child, no matter his or her economic status," Burke said.

Burke said she believes every school district in Virginia should have a wellness officer, especially an urban district like Richmond. Burke explained many families in the East End, which she represents on the board, face food and housing insecurity and witness the impacts of gun violence.

Just this year, Armstrong High School student, Dashawn Cox was shot and killed in February. In April, George Wythe student, Samiyah Yellardy, died from a shooting inside her South Richmond home.

“How do you handle knowing that you have to cross over a spot on your way to school where someone was murdered the day before," Burke said.

Meanwhile, School Board Chair, Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed said she appreciates parents' concerns and the need to address mental health challenges, but she doesn't see the necessity of filling a Chief Wellness Officer position salaried at $185,000.

Instead, Harris-Muhammed said her priorities are to reorganize central office staff and provide more assistance to the Culture and Climate Department which currently handles the bulk of health-related issues.

"I believe we need to place the support there," Dr. Harris-Muhammed said in an email to CBS 6. "It is not about a person, it is about alignment of positions to best meet the needs of the entire division, not just one entity."

Board member Jonathan Young said his priority is to fill vacant teacher positions and empower employees inside school buildings rather than support central office positions.

"The truth is that for many of our students, our people in the buildings are the sole persons in our lives who are identifying if there is a mental health episode or if there is something that constitutes a threat to health, safety and welfare," Young said.

He added he blames RPS for creating a worsened mental health crisis by prolonging virtual learning during the pandemic. Richmond was one of the last school districts in the state to return to in-person instruction.

“It's arguably worse in RPS because we closed our schools for a year and a half," he said.

School Board Vice-Chair, Kenya Gibson, questioned if RPS' greatest need is to hire more administrators or support folks with "boots on the ground."

In a statement to CBS 6, Gibson said, "I think there is a really strong argument to prioritize cafeteria workers, restorative justice professionals, and counselors to support critical day-to-day needs."

An email obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed the Director of Culture, Climate, and Student Services, Angela Jones, said she was concerned about the board majority's disapproval of hiring a Chief Wellness Officer in February.

Jones wrote, "Sadly I have spent too many nights and weekends answering calls about students hurting or in trouble. I deeply believe in being fiscally responsible and judicious in our spending and planning, but our students need a strong voice at the table to see the work all the way through."

DuVal said she was heartbroken to read Jones' email and said she hopes board members who voted against the wellness officer reconsider their position.

"I want them to put kids first. I don't believe you run for school board with any other objective in mind," she said. “The mental health needs of our children have to come first.”

CBS 6 reached out to Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover schools to ask if those districts have a similar position to Chief Wellness Officer within the administration. Henrico and Hanover responded that they did not.

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