Fox School Board rep says Richmond Fire Department 'failed' students: 'It is time for accountability'

Posted at 4:42 PM, Jul 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-12 17:46:37-04

RICHMOND, Va -- Richmond School Board members pushed for a 'balance' of accountability as the Fox Elementary fire investigation report prompted renewed questions about the Richmond Fire department's inspection of the school months before the devastating February 2022 fire.

Richmond School Board member Mariah White, who represents the 2nd District and Fox Elementary School, said she wasn't too surprised after reading through the investigation report.

“It didn't tell me really anything that I wouldn't have expected," White said. "I kind of knew it would be accidental."

However, one part of the 31-page report left her deeply concerned. It was the part where investigators included the latest Richmond Fire Department (RFD)'s inspection of Fox.

In August 2021, RFD issued several violations of the Virginia Statewide Fire Prevention Code to include an alarm system in "trouble mode," issues with illumination emergency power, and combustible materials stored in the boiler room.

But White pointed to multiple details that were seemingly left off the document, which she had only seen for the first time in July 2022.

“Why would you give a notice of violation with not a signature and no follow-up," White asked.

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Richmond Fire was required to reinspect for corrections by September 30, 2021, but the "date corrected" space on the notice of violations was blank, along with the space in which the receiver of the notice would've left a signature.

Richmond Public Schools (RPS) said it was not made aware of the violations before the fire.

A spokesperson for the school district said this week, in July 2022, RFD claimed it handed a hard copy of the notice of violations to a former member of the RPS facilities team in-person "sometime in the week following the 8/24 inspection."

"There is no email or written record that this happened, only what RFD has shared with us verbally. There is also no record of that team member sharing the notice of violation with the Principal, Director of Facilities, or any other RPS employee," RPS spokesperson Matthew Stanley said.

Stanley also confirmed RPS did not witness RFD return to Fox to re-inspect for violations, and the school district confirmed with the fire department a follow-up never took place.

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Richmond School Board Chair Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed said school board members have not seen the notice of violations until recently, leaving her "distressingly concerned."

She said the board would've been presented with the notice after it was received by RPS leadership and the school principal.

"I am not clear as of today, why there was a prodigious communication breakdown referencing the following: 1) the notice of violation report, 2) why weren't RPS leaders informed of the report, and 3) accountability; where is the balance," Harris-Muhammed said.

White said, as a board member, she demanded to know what fell through the cracks with the inspection, as other facilities across the district may be impacted in the future.

“How many other notice of violations exist and for how many schools? We had almost 24 schools with a problem with alarm detectors. I am still so concerned about this," White said.

The Richmond Fire Chief and Fire Marshal declined requests for interviews with CBS 6, so reporter Tyler Layne took questions to their boss, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

“Mayor, are you concerned that the fire department failed to reinspect violations at Fox Elementary during that last inspection before the fire," Layne asked during a brief gaggle with reporters last week.

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"Obviously, we do not like to see what happened on Fox. It was a fire. Thank God no one was injured, no one died. That's a great thing. We have to look at how we move forward in our inspections. Whether it's involving the Fire Marshal's Office, we're always going to work towards doing better," Mayor Stoney responded.

“As far as not following up on the inspections, is that a failure on the fire department," Layne asked.

“I mean, it seems to me that there’d be pox on all houses on this one, right? I mean, when you look at it, when I look at what occurred on the RPS side and what occurred on our [the city's] side, I think we'd like to try and go and rewrite history and wish that things would happen in a different way. We always wish that," Stoney said.

However, White had a different take. She worried other children in the school district could be at risk if the fire department does not make improvements within its Fire Prevention Division.

“If you have not followed up on this, you have failed. You have failed the students. You have failed your system," White said.

White's criticism was directed beyond the fire department, adding RPS district leaders also had a responsibility to bear in the events leading up to the Fox devastation.

The investigation report highlighted issues within the building including faulty fire alarms, electrical issues, a rodent infestation, and a communication gap among nighttime security the night of the fire.

“I’m talking about the superintendent, his administration, anyone who's in a leadership role," she said.

White accused RPS of letting maintenance issues, safety systems, and emergency protocols slip through the cracks for "far too long."

“It is time for accountability when it comes to the safety of our children at RPS," White said. "Let's stand for what is right."

The sentiment was echoed by Richmond School Board Vice-Chair Kenya Gibson, who said a "lack of administrative accountability" has led to "systematized failures" and "escalating emergencies" that put students at risk.

She added RPS was "failing in matters of basic safety."

"We cannot normalize neglect, we deserve better. The Board must act," Gibson wrote in a statement. "As a Board, we have two tools at our disposal. We are not permitted day-to-day oversight, and as part-time officials, we can’t run the schools. What we can do is to create and enforce policy along with and hire, manage, and fire the district Superintendent."

However, Gibson did not directly say whether she would support or oppose firing Richmond Superintendent Jason Kamras.

Meanwhile, Stanley said RPS has taken action since the Fox fire to ensure safety in the following areas:

  • Replaced eight fire panels, installed six communicators, and completed 804 programming where programming was accessible. All alarm panels are communicating. 
  • Installed Knox boxes at all school facilities, with keys to access the building. 
  • Updated contact information with 911 communications and Johnson Controls. 
  • We also now receive a daily status report of fire panel communications. 

"We are beyond grateful that no one has been injured in either of the incidents this year [Fox fire and bus depot fire] and are continuing to work on further improvements to our safety practices and protocols to ensure the safety of our students, staff, and community," Stanley said.