Most Richmond schools failed fire inspections at start of school year with 190 violations: 'There's no words'

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Posted at 6:43 PM, Sep 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-14 12:47:25-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- According to dozens of fire inspection reports obtained by CBS 6, a majority of Richmond schools were in violation of fire code standards for the start of the 2023-2024 school year, and reinspections are currently behind schedule.

As previously reported, Superintendent Jason Kamras and Fire Chief Melvin Carter pledged to improve their process for school inspections after Fox Elementary School was found to be in violation of multiple fire codes when it was destroyed by fire in February 2022.

CBS 6 also later uncovered internal emails that showed inspections at schools across the district went unchecked for months, and the facilities director delayed the fire department's access to schools to complete reinspections. It led an assistant fire marshal to accuse him of "extreme neglect."

Richmond parent Charlene Riley was nervous Wednesday morning when her daughter texted her videos showing firetrucks at her school, Thomas Jefferson High.

“It was an immediate feeling of concern," Riley said. “I started thinking about safety and the children and what could be going on at 8:50 in the morning.”

Fortunately, it turned out to be a minor incident of smoke in a room due to a bad motor in the AC system, according to an email Superintendent Jason Kamras shared with the school board.

But what is not minor, Riley said, is an August 8 fire inspection of Thomas Jefferson that cited the school with 11 fire safety failures including multiple electrical hazards, unapproved conditions, and maintenance required to smoke detectors.

"It makes me feel very uneasy knowing that we are operating schools with outdated fire inspections," Riley said. “But if it’s 11 violations at Thomas Jefferson, we can only imagine how many violations it is at other schools.”

CBS 6 requested, through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), inspection reports for all 46 RPS schools.

33 of them, or about 70% of the buildings, were cited with more than 190 total violations district-wide. Pictures of the hazards were documented in the reports showing wires hanging from ceilings, exposed outlets, expired fire extinguishers, uncovered electrical panels, and more.

While some facilities were supposed to have already been reinspected to make sure violations were fixed, reinspections have been delayed.

According to the City of Richmond's FOIA officer, reinspections of schools just began last week, but the good news is that ten schools were determined to be violation-free.

RPS spokesperson Matthew Stanley said the plan was to have every school cleared of safety failures before the start of classes on August 21. However, he said the facilities team prioritized Fairfield Elementary and Cardinal Elementary since they started school in July as part of the 200-day calendar, and those two schools achieved that goal.

As to why the rest did not, Stanley said, "We worked very closely with the fire department and checked in regularly to stay on schedule... Not all inspections were completed on the date scheduled for different reasons, some of which were beyond anyone's control."

CBS 6 showed all the inspection records to School Board Member Kenya Gibson.

IN-DEPTH: Read Richmond Fire Inspection Reports (Part 1) | (Part 2)

"There's no words," Gibson said in reaction. "The reality of our facilities, it's horrifying. I think everyone in the city should be alarmed."

In an August 7 school board presentation, the RPS administration said, "Every school has been inspected again by RFD. Most had no violations."

However, there were still more than a dozen schools that had not yet been inspected at that point, according to the dates listed on the inspection reports, and most schools did actually end up having violations.

Another school board presentation, dated August 14, then said, "Working to complete all fire and sprinkler inspections before the start of the school year."

Gibson said she was unaware of the scope of the issues.

"Did I know that the schools had so many violations? No. I feel like we've been assured that, in fact, the violations have been taken care of," Gibson said. “Do I trust that we have enough eyes on the problem? Absolutely not."

Gibson is, once again, calling for the school board to hire a safety auditor, whose sole focus would be to scrutinize RPS safety matters and make recommendations. Gibson previously introduced the proposal during a June 20 school board meeting, but it was shot down by a majority of the board.

Some board members requested more information about the scope of the role and the costs associated with it, but Gibson did not have definitive answers at the time. Other board members said they wanted to evaluate the plans and performance of the newly-hired district safety director before making a decision on a board safety auditor.

"For whatever reasons, I don't have the votes, but I keep bringing it up because it is clear to me that we need at least one person who is going to ensure that we are doing the steps we are required to do to keep our students safe," Gibson said. “Somehow, I pray that there's some type of accountability that happens. As a board, that's our job.”

CBS 6 reached out to the City of Richmond multiple times asking for a response from the fire department and requesting an interview. We did not hear back.

(NOTE: The City of Richmond FOIA officer provided the inspection reports to CBS 6 on September 6 and charged CBS 6 $165.96 for the records, citing four hours of research at 41.49/hour.)

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