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In Richmond, Records Show How Scuffles Become Arrests

School architecture
Thomas Jefferson High School is one of many schools where students have been arrested for minor altercations. (Photo: rvaphotodude/CC-2.0)

Newly-released documents reveal details about arrests of students in Richmond schools. Obtained by VPM through a public records request, the documents paint a picture of the types of incidents that result in assault charges filed against students. If convicted by a judge, these charges could stay on the young person’s record until the age of 29. That means a fight at school as a 14-year-old could have far-reaching effects on the student’s life 15 years later. 

“Even if you can get into college or law school with a criminal record, you may not be able to get licensed,” said Julie McConnell, director of the Children’s Defense Clinic at the University of Richmond.

McConnell says the Richmond-area court system isn’t set up to handle things like fights in schools, which she says would be better-handled by the schools themselves. They don’t have mediators, and they don’t have a robust restorative justice program.

“Two months later, we finally go to court and we don’t even remember what the fight was about,” McConnell said. “It’s just a really, really ill-advised way to try to resolve conflict between kids.”

Cases involving minors are referred to a court intake officer. The case will either be diverted, meaning the student is recommended for services like anger management or counseling, or it will end up before a judge who will determine charges. Either way, there are consequences for students and parents who are entangled in the juvenile justice system for months and sometimes years. 

As VPM previously reported, the majority of student arrests last year involved what’s known as “simple assault.” The individual records show most of these were fights between students: in the classroom, lunchroom, hallway or on their way coming into or leaving the school building.

Some involved punching and minor injuries like a scratch or black eye. Often, no physical injuries are detailed in reports, but still lead to an assault charge filed, often “simple assault” and occasionally “assault by mob.” Many of these assault cases involve middle school students at MLK, Boushall and Elkhardt Thompson middle schools. 

Below are excerpts from public records VPM obtained that show four specific examples of altercations that resulted in criminal charges categorized as simple assault. The students’ names have been redacted and have been replaced by [student name]. These reports were filed by school staff such as school security officers (SSOs), who work alongside the school-based police officers, known as school resource officers (SROs) to help maintain order in the school. SSOs are employees of the school district, whereas SROs are employees of the police department and can make arrests.

Middle school examples 

Example One: Filed October 2, 2019 at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School

Kevin Harris completed this report: “SSO Davis was on post at dismissal at door #1. I overheard student [student name] mention that she was going to fight. I advised [student name] to go home. Student [student name] began to assault student [student name]. [Student name] attempted to join the fight to help [student name] who was assaulting [student name]. I stood between [student name] to prevent her from joining the fight. I then separated [student name] and [student name] from fighting without using any type of restraint. [Student name] began to yell ‘Yeah bitch lets go across the street.’ I instructed [student name] to return to the school building. [student name] began to run towards me and [student name] aggressively. [student name] lounged towards [student name] bumped into me and fell to the ground. Officer May arrived at the scene and arrested [student names]. [Student name] was interviewed and provided a written statement. [Student name] refused to provide a written statement of the incident. Parents were notified. Disciplinary action taken; [student name] was suspended 3 days out of school. [Student name] was charged by Richmond police with simple assault….”

Example Two: Filed November 19, 2019 at Elkhardt Thompson Middle School

Lydia Barrett completed this report: “Officer Davis stated that while he was on duty in the cafeteria, [student name] approached him and smacked him on this head inappropriately. [Student name] admitted that she did touch his head and stated that rubbing a bald head brings good luck. [Student name] was escorted to Mr. Jones, the assistant principal by SSO Williams. Safety and Security were notified as well as parents. [Student name] was charged with simple assault by SRO Norwood. Mr. Jones had a parental conference with her mother and [student name] was left with her mother.” The student wrote in her statement, “I touched the security officer’s head.”

High school examples

Example Three: Filed November 14, 2019 at Huguenot High School

Ronald Walters completed this report: “at approximately 7:34 AM during morning arrival student [student name] assaulted student [student name] on the 200 hallway. [student name] approached [student name] and hit her in the face with a binder followed by a closed fist. The two began to fight and fell to the ground. Students were separated and escorted to the security office without further incident. Nurse Gavis was notified due to [student name] injuries to the face and right eye. Her parent was advised to seek further medical attention as a precaution to the scratches she received near her eye. [Student name] admitted to assaulting [student name] stating that the two exchanged words related to a young male sometime prior to the incident. Safety and Security Central Office and administration was notified. [student name] was given 10 days out of school suspension and is pending a panel hearing per administrator Dr. Hines. SRO Ruffin was notified of the incident and [student name] was charged with simple assault.”

Example Four: Filed January 24, 2020 at Thomas Jefferson High School

Elizabeth Carney completed this report: “At approximately 10:45 AM two students [student name] and [student name] got into a fight on the second floor back in room 224. Student [student name] stood in front of class and waited for her. As [student name] got to the door of her class [student name] punched [student name] in the back of the head with a closed fist. Both students were escorted to the main office to see an administrator.”

The report goes on to say that family members arrived and wanted to know what was going on with assistant principals. “Mr. LeReche was telling them what had took place in the classroom. That’s when [student name] get up stood in front of Mr. LeReche and grabbed his shirt with both hands shaking him and saying to him 'how would you feel if somebody did this to you?' Mr LeReche jerked away and left the office. SRO Santana was called to the main office at this time. Mr. LeReche pressed charges against the [student name]. SRO Santana charged the [student name] with simple assault.”

A similar freedom of information request for disciplinary reports was submitted to RPD, but would have required a $1,000 fee and records involving misdemeanor offenses would have been exempt. VPM requested an interview with individual SROs involved in these records but was told by a spokesperson that “these cases involve juveniles. We would not speak about them on an individual case-by-case basis.”  The department would only make Lt. Ronnie Armstead, who oversees SROs, available. 

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The role of SROs in Richmond schools is under the magnifying glass right now, as the district has committed to a 90-day review of its contract with the Richmond Police Department. The district has scheduled two public hearings in August, as well as student focus groups. After a student town hall last Thursday, RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras announced he plans to ask Richmond’s city council to reappropriate money spent on SROs for student mental health support. 

School board members like Dawn Page are horrified that so many students are getting arrested in the district, and have requested more information about the roles SROs and SSOs play in schools.

“It’s clearly showing that certain children are being treated differently than others,” Page said. “This information is very alarming...what's going on here?”

“I personally am not saying we don't need to have somebody in a school to break up a fight...we certainly do,” school board member Kenya Gibson said during a discussion of the arrest data last Monday night. “But what we need that person to have is the right training, and I don't think they need a gun and I don't think they need a badge.”

RPS vice chair Cheryl Burke, who has previously spoken out in support of SROs in schools, said last week that she doesn’t want teachers to be the ones to handle fights and other safety issues.

“Because many children come to school with a lot on their mind, some come with things in their system before they walk through the front door,” Burke said. “Who's going to handle that? If it's not an SRO that’s fine, but it needs to be somebody.”

Valerie Slater, executive director for RISE for Youth, was surprised to see the number of student arrests in Richmond over the last couple of years, and says students shouldn’t be referred to courts for fights.

“Nowadays, we just find so many young people being shuffled into juvenile justice rather than allowing the school system to do what it should do: help young people begin to regulate their behaviors, and understand what does the social dynamic look like, even in the midst of disagreement? And how do I find that way to interact with someone that I might find myself in disagreement with?”

Others say that with the right people with the right training, SROs can do more good than harm in schools. Mo Canady, executive director for the National Association of School Resource Officers, says their goal should be to minimize student arrests.

“When it comes to an arrest or filing criminal charges, that's going to be the SRO’s decision based on the law, but also based on their discernment. It really is a position that carries with it a high level of discretion,” Canady said.

Other than the 90-day review of the Richmond Police Department’s contract, there have been no announced plans to take a broader, systematic review of school security and school discipline in Richmond Public Schools. VPM will continue to report on these arrests.

VPM’s Malcolm Key and VCU’s Anika Imajo contributed data analysis to this story.