Eight months after Fox fire, all fire code violations within Richmond schools are now fixed

Posted at 6:10 PM, Nov 29, 2022

RICHMOND, Va. -- More than eight months after Fox Elementary was destroyed by a massive fire, all Richmond Public Schools have been cleared of their previous fire safety violations. The milestone comes after RPS faced scrutiny for schools having improperly working fire alarms and hundreds of existing violations at the time of the Fox blaze.

When Fox burned down on February 11, 2022, the school remained in violation of eight fire safety codes that were documented during an August 2021 inspection -- six months prior. Though the violations, which included a fire alarm panel in "trouble mode," should have been fixed and reinspected by the fire department for compliance in September, a reinspection never happened.

Issues with fire alarms and school inspections weren't unique to Fox. In the months, weeks, and days before the fire, 21 Richmond schools, including Fox, submitted work orders for faltering fire alarm panels.

Emails obtained by CBS 6 showed the Richmond Fire Marshal's Office found more than 200 violations across the district during 2021 inspections but was "seemingly denied access" to get back inside the schools to reinspect for compliance. In emails, Assistant Fire Marshal William Spindle wrote that the district's Director of Facilities Bobby Hathaway put himself in a position of "extreme neglect" and that RPS showed a "complete lack of effort" ensuring the schools were safe since 2020.

But a letter Spindle sent to RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras on November 1, 2022, painted a completely different picture. Titled "Completion of School Inspections," the letter declared RPS free of all violations.

"This was a collaborative effort by the Richmond Fire Marshal's Office and the Richmond Public Schools Facilities Department," Spindle said. "The inspections for this school year started just before the 2022 summer school session began to ensure students would be learning in an environment free from noted fire code violations."

Some of the violations, he noted, were outstanding from the 2021-2022 school year.

Spindle gave credit to the RPS facilities team for "daily communication" coordinating initial and follow-up inspections and that the custodial staff at every school worked diligently to fix infractions.

He thanked staff at both agencies for "showing great care and perseverance to finish all of the schools in a record time frame" and said, "It is rewarding to witness the continued formation of a grand collaboration for a critical part of our great city."

In an interview with CBS 6 last week, Superintendent Kamras said he was "proud" of the progress made.

“We're absolutely thrilled. It's really been a very tight partnership between RPS and RFD. I really appreciate Chief Carter and his team. We've worked very closely to make sure every single school, every single violation has been addressed," Kamras said. "We learned a lot from the fire, and we've improved."

Shannon Heady, the mother of a 5th-grade student at Fox, said reading the recent school inspections letter brought her great peace of mind.

"It's such a cause for celebration," Heady said. "And considering it has just been a year, I mean, kudos to RPS to pull it together and all the cooperation with the Richmond Fire Department. That's a major undertaking."

She added, "I feel confident that they will continue this partnership and that we've had success when everybody does come together. I think that there's always room for improvement."

But Heady said she doesn't believe the progress should end here.

“What I would like to see as a parent is just to keep it going. We need to look at all of our facilities, and we know even though we did pass this, we’ve still got a lot of work to do," Heady said.

She said she supports a district-wide facilities assessment, a measure that would have to be approved by the Richmond School Board. The assessment would involve hiring a third-party contractor to thoroughly evaluate the needs of each RPS building and help advise the district on prioritizing repairs and maintenance items.

"It's a strategic investment, and I think what I keep hearing from parents all over is that we would like our school board to be more thoughtful and strategic with their planning instead of reactionary," Heady said.

In April, just two months after the Fox fire, a majority of school board members voted to reject moving forward with an assessment, with many of their concerns centering around the cost of the project. Board members including Jonathan Young and Kenya Gibson said they'd rather spend the $500,000 on correcting maintenance problems than creating a list of them.

7th District board member Cheryl Burke brought back a discussion on a facilities assessment in June, and the board requested that the RPS facilities team come to give a presentation in a future meeting before taking a vote. But as of November, a presentation has not yet occurred.

Burke told CBS 6 on Tuesday that she hasn't given up on her efforts to get the assessment approved. She expressed concerns that RPS has not had an updated assessment since Kamras became superintendent in 2018.

"We need to know what we're working with," Burke said. "We can't see everything behind the scenes."

She said the assessment would address facility needs "top to bottom" to include "every wall, every intentity of the structure, the HVAC system, and the water system."

"I'd rather spend $500,000 moving in the right direction than to go back later and spend millions," she said. "When we address what's listed on the facilities assessment, we can avoid problems that we've had in the past."

Burke plans to request a line item in the next budget cycle to include funding for an assessment.