Richmond School Board member wants discussion on Fox fire 'failures' following Problem Solvers Investigation

Posted at 3:28 PM, Oct 04, 2022

RICHMOND, Va -- A Richmond School Board member requested a discussion related to fire safety in schools during the board's Monday night meeting following a Problem Solvers Investigation report detailing challenges that prevented the Richmond Fire Department from completing annual safety inspections.

The fire department's Deputy Fire Marshal William Spindle wrote in email communications, just weeks before Fox Elementary School burned down in February, that he was "seemingly being denied access to reinspect the schools after documenting over 200 violations in RPS" by the district's Facilities Director Bobby Hathaway, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Spindle accused Hathaway of "extreme neglect" to the fire department and said Richmond Public Schools (RPS) showed a "complete lack of effort" ensuring schools were safe since 2020.

At the time of the Fox fire, the school remained in violation of eight safety violations, including a faulty fire alarm panel, that were never reinspected for compliance. The violations documented in August 2021 were supposed to be corrected by September 2021, but they never were.

Board Representative Mariah White, whose 2nd District includes Fox, called for a conversation among the board members and Superintendent Jason Kamras on Monday.

Mariah White
Richmond School Board member Mariah White

"Is it a closed discussion or open discussion on the failures that happened at Fox Elementary dealing with the fire," White asked Superintendent Jason Kamras.

"I'm sorry, I didn't understand the question," Kamras replied.

"Before I ask the question, I would like to know, is this open or closed dealing with the failures of the Fox fire that was discussed publicly on the television the other day," White asked.

Board Chairwoman Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed answered that the discussion would take place during closed session.

However, board members said they did not end up discussing "Fox failures" per White's request once they entered closed session.

White said she will renew calls for a discussion on this topic during the board's next meeting later in October.

"It is my expectation that the school board will discuss the concerns referencing Fox Elementary that several school board members have in our appropriate meeting which is our executive session," Harris-Muhammed said.

During a September interview with the CBS 6 Problem Solvers, Kamras said he did not know what led to the communication breakdown between the school district and fire department. He said he could not discuss whether anyone was held accountable since it is a personnel matter.

Harris-Muhammed also said she could not discuss how the board will "apply accountability."

Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter said the violations at Fox did not impact the cause of the fire, which remains undetermined.

However, Carter said the violation of a fire alarm panel in "trouble mode" made it difficult for firefighters to locate which part of the facility was in alarm.

When they responded to the school the first time the night of the fire, they cleared the building after searching the exterior for about 30 minutes and the interior for about 12 minutes. Firefighters returned less than 30 minutes later to find Fox consumed by flames.

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