Richmond teacher said security concerns 'fell on deaf ears' leading up to school shooting

Posted at 6:34 PM, May 17, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- A teacher at Richmond's George Wythe High School is "tired of being ignored" after she said her concerns about security issues at the school, leading up to a shooting on school grounds, were not taken seriously.

Nerilis Suarez has been teaching at Wythe for the past six years. She said this school year has been particularly challenging as it relates to safety.

“A lot of people do not feel safe at George Wythe, and my concern is how can students learn when they do not feel safe? How do staff members feel when they show up every day and they do not feel safe?" Suarez said.

A survey completed in fall 2022 revealed that only 14% of teachers at Wythe felt safe at the school.

So, when two students were shot by another student in the school's parking lot on April 27, Suarez was unfortunately not shocked.

“Not surprised, no. Heartbroken to see it anyway? Yes," Suarez said.

According to an email that Richmond Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras sent to the school board, the student who was most seriously injured, Victor Sandoval, went to school the day of the shooting and walked out a door around 11 a.m.

That was an hour before he was shot in the parking lot.

Suarez said unmonitored doors with nonworking alarms and students who congregate in the parking lot unsupervised during school hours are not new issues and should have been corrected and enforced long ago.

“Could this have been avoided? I don't know. I can't go back in time, but something could have been in place to address the issues that we're having with the doors and the alarms on the doors. We cannot monitor 100 plus doors, even if they have alarms," Suarez said.

Back in October, a loaded gun was found on a Wythe student who police said had recently shot someone.

Suarez said that gun was recovered in her classroom.

An RPS spokesperson said they never confirmed how the gun got into the building, since Wythe has metal detectors. Students speculated it might've gotten in through a side door.

Then shortly after that incident, a photo started circulating that appeared to show a student holding a gun inside Wythe with a message that read in part: "You better watch out for your friends."

Richmond Police later said their investigation did not find a threat inside the school.

Those incidents marked just two of the other safety incidents taking place at Wythe this school year before the shooting occurred, yet Suarez believes the district did not follow up with an adequate security response.

"From a loaded gun that was found, to the picture that was rolling around on social media with two students with guns, this is not an isolated incident. We have seen this escalating for a while now," Suarez said.

Suarez said over the past year, she has spoken publicly at school board meetings and written emails to RPS leaders to sound the alarm on security concerns.

For example, in September 2022, Suarez wrote an email to school leaders requesting more care and safety associates for Wythe, noting that metal detectors were not being used properly, and that the building was being left vulnerable due to a lack of staffing.

She also mentioned that students were roaming the halls unsupervised.

More recently and following the shooting, Suarez wrote another email to school board members and Kamras saying her attempts to bring attention to safety concerns at Wythe have "fallen on deaf ears."

"We need solutions now! My opinion is that RPS doesn't know what to do with GWHS and our students are the innocent bystanders to this mismanagement," Suarez wrote in her email, which was dated May 10.

While Suarez said she's grateful that Wythe will be rebuilt in the coming years, if nothing changes, the new school will "house the same issues."

“I, for one, am tired of being ignored and the excuses, because these are serious, serious matters," Suarez told CBS 6.

CBS 6 requested an interview with Superintendent Jason Kamras Tuesday and Wednesday, but an RPS spokesperson said he was unavailable.

CBS 6 also asked the administration and School Board Chair Stephanie Rizzi for a response to Suarez's concerns and has not yet heard back.

School Board Representative Shonda Harris-Muhammed (6th District) told CBS 6 in a statement she was "truly concerned" to read Suarez's email.

"It saddens me that one of our dedicated teachers out of many, is feeling this way," Harris-Muhammed wrote. "I am just one of nine school board representatives who are deeply concerned with the safety and security of our students and their mental well-being... I have spoken to the culture and climate of our schools since January 2021. I will continue to bring the concerns to the forefront of the division's administration."

Meanwhile, Suarez said she and other teachers are pushing for long-term solutions to security issues at Wythe, noting that she feels some of the immediate responses from RPS in the aftermath of the shooting are not sustainable.

For example, she said teachers are being asked to spend 45-minute planning shifts next to side doors so that they can monitor the exits.

"We definitely need more staff. We need more care and safety associates, and we need a plan. We need a real plan in place to not just control the daily operation of safety, but also to address emergency situations," Suarez said. "We want to see solutions now."

When asked which safety measures RPS implemented back in October when the loaded gun was found and which measures were implemented following the shooting, spokesperson Matthew Stanely said:

"New door alarms were installed and/or existing alarms are being checked regularly for proper functionality; Three additional Security officers have been added to the building; security continues to utilize metal detectors and bag checks at the main entry door; and assists with hall sweeps and door monitoring. Staff has been provided additional building radios for communication; the school also utilizes additional staff to monitor doors."

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