Richmond Superintendent considers metal detectors at middle schools: 'I recognize this is controversial'

Posted at 6:20 PM, Mar 16, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond Public Schools leaders are considering installing metal detectors at all middle schools across the district in a proposal that the superintendent called controversial.

It's welcome news for Richmond mom Tisha Erby, who has children at every level of the school district. She said her top priority is making sure her children are protected while they're learning, but she constantly hears them express safety concerns.

“Hey mom, it was another fight today. Hey mom, oh, we were on lockdown today," Erby said when describing those conversations with her kids. “Are we really safe or what?”

On Monday, a student was caught with an unloaded gun at Boushall Middle School. It marked the fourth firearm and the sixteenth weapon to be recovered from school property this current school year, according to data RPS gave to CBS 6. During the 2021-2022 school year, data showed 27 total weapons were confiscated including five guns.

Now, RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras is bringing forward a proposal to have metal detectors installed at Richmond middle schools. He's expected to give a presentation to the school board on Monday.

In an internal message to school board members this week, Kamras said, "I recognize this is controversial and that it comes with some drawbacks. But I want to make sure we're taking every possible step to keep our students safe.”

Erby supports the measure and says it could benefit students at every grade level.

“I feel like all elementary and middle and high schools should have metal detectors just to be safe, because you never know what kids will bring," Erby said. "I have one concern, that if they go through the metal detectors, it should not just be certain students or certain staff. I feel like all should go through the metal detectors."

If the proposal moves forward, she said she hopes schools will allow students extra time to get scanned and get to class on time.

Richmond parent Shannon Heady, whose daughter will attend Binford Middle School next year, said she also supports the measure, but with reservations.

“I think it is complicated, and it is scary right now. Nobody wants to send their children to a middle school with a metal detector, but we know the reality is, guns are getting into the schools," Heady said. "While I don't want metal detectors, I feel like that may be a solution that we need because we don't have enough bodies to prevent them coming in."

At least one school board member, Jonathan Young (4th District), embraced Kamras' plan. However, he admitted it could send the wrong message to students.

“I have to tell you, Tyler, I’m going to support this proposal. But God knows, I don’t want to," Young said. “Of course, we have to do it because we are regularly in receipt as a school board member of notification every hour of every day relevant to threats, and too frequently, they pertain to weapons, firearms, knives, etc.”

Young slammed the rest of his colleagues on the nine-member School Board, blaming their restorative justice approach to disciplining students for an increase in concerning safety events within schools.

"I think it's really unfortunate that the school board of the City of Richmond are unwilling to do their job, and because they are determined to continue to veto educators' decisions relevant to safety and welfare and best practices in their buildings," Young said. "Now we're going to have to do something that I don't want to have to do."

Conversely, school board member Kenya Gibson (3rd District) questioned the effectiveness of metal detectors and said she believes students will feel less safe when they walk through them. Gibson was unavailable for an interview Thursday but sent CBS 6 a written statement.

"Ultimately, school safety is an issue that needs to be solved by professionals, not a machine," Gibson said. "This goes beyond a single weapon in a building. We just had a parent speak multiple times at public board meetings about an assault they claimed was unreported; we have had students go missing; and we have fights occurring in our buildings with alarming frequency."

She added, "This is about checks and balances. We need to make sure we have the right procedures in place, sufficient staff to execute, and ongoing audits to ensure we aren’t missing critical steps.”

Heady emphasized that metal detectors cannot be the sole solution to preventing school violence and called for more resources within schools to support the mental health and emotional needs of students.

"I think that having counselors, community mental health professionals in the schools is super important," Heady said. "We know that there is a massive shortage, not just of teachers, but of social workers, of counselors. So even if we could snap our fingers tomorrow and fund all those positions, there aren't enough of those people available. We've got to really get creative as a community and tap into different community groups."

Both Erby and Heady said they hope the School Board will listen to and engage parents as they consider implementing metal detectors and other resources to make schools safer.

"Us parents, we're going to keep barking up the tree, going to the news, this, that, and the other. Y'all work for us," Erby said.

When asked multiple times by CBS 6 Thursday, Young would not commit to a parent engagement process before making a decision on metal detectors. He said he was still not sure on a cost estimate or a timeline for the proposed project.

Currently, there are metal detectors installed in all RPS high schools, the alternative school, and the technical center. A spokesperson said Boushall Middle School is already scheduled to have metal detectors installed.

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