Sur­vive a shoot­ing Satur­day, back at school Mon­day

Kids carry trauma into the class­room

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - Front Page - BY K. BURNELL EVANS Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch

Inches and chance were all that sep­a­rated Bethany Harper, 12, from the bul­lets that ripped through her fam­ily’s front porch on Fifth Av­enue on Sept. 9.



The same spared her 9-year-old friend, So­lai Cole­man, from worse than a bul­let lodged in her hip. It was headed for the Over­byShep­pard Ele­men­tary School stu­dent’s chest when she jumped at the crack­ling pop of gun­fire.

“It was so scary,” Bethany said. “Af­ter (So­lai) told me she got shot, I couldn’t stop cry­ing.”


Maybe it was luck that saved them. Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was the framed words of the Great Com­mand­ment, hang­ing above their heads like a tal­is­man as the girls shared the seat of a white me­tal chair and a laugh with friends on a crisp late sum­mer night.

Harper’s fa­ther isn’t sure. But he does know that what­ever led to the bul­lets pierc­ing his porch and front win­dow is only the lat­est in a string of vi­o­lent in­ci­dents that saw his daugh­ter nearly join the list of those shot or slain over eight days of may­hem that left nine dead across the city of Rich­mond.

“We had noth­ing to do with the trans­ac­tion (that led to the shoot­ing) Satur­day, but they shot at our chil­dren


— chil­dren,” said Thomas Harper. “We have a new rule in this house: ‘You’re not al­lowed to go be­yond this line,’ ” he said, plant­ing his foot on the front of the fam­ily’s wooden porch.

Ex­perts in child­hood trauma warn that the re­cent rash of vi­o­lence af­fects not only those di­rectly in­volved, but also those grow­ing up in and around neigh­bor­hoods seared by gun­fire and criss­crossed by yel­low crime-scene tape.

In Rich­mond, the num­ber of chil­dren whose lives have been in­ter­rupted is grow­ing, and they carry the weight of those ex­pe­ri­ences through the doors of city schools and into their class­rooms.

Bethany re­turned to Martin Luther King Jr. Mid­dle School on Mon­day, 36 hours af­ter es­cap­ing death. Classes also re­sumed for the hun­dreds of chil­dren who woke up in Gilpin Court last Sun­day to find their neigh­bor­hoods over­run by po­lice in­ves­ti­gat­ing four slay­ings.

It wasn’t easy, Bethany said later, fid­dling with the hem of her jacket sleeve.

“In my head, I was just think­ing about her,” she said of So­lai, who spent the bet­ter part of a week wait­ing on surgery to have the bul­let re­moved from her hip. “My teacher had to come tell me to fo­cus.”

The killings last week­end pushed to 59 the num­ber of lives cut short by vi­o­lence in Rich­mond in 2017, com­pared with 45 at that point last year, which was the worst in a decade.

It was mid­way through 2016 when for­mer Rich­mond Pub­lic Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Dana Bed­den is­sued an emer­gency plea for help ad­dress­ing the rou­tine trauma in many of his stu­dents’ lives.

The divi­sion joined forces with the Robins Foun­da­tion and non­prof­its ChildSavers and Stop Child Abuse Now to launch a pi­lot pro­gram this year in the city’s East End schools, where the need is acute.

The 2016-17 school year saw 25 stu­dents shot, along with the 1-year-old child of two stu­dents. Four­teen oth­ers were vic­tims of ag­gra­vated as­sault or ma­li­cious wound­ing. Nine ad­di­tional stu­dents died in shoot­ings or ve­hi­cle-re­lated in­ci­dents, ac­cord­ing to divi­sion data.

An­gela Jones, di­rec­tor of stu­dent ser­vices at the divi­sion’s Of­fice of Fam­ily and Com­mu­nity En­gage­ment, gets a text each time, most of­ten from Rich­mond po­lice Capt. Daniel Min­ton.

Her phone be­gan light­ing up last Sun­day while she was cook­ing break­fast.

“In this par­tic­u­lar case, it was a bad, bad sit­u­a­tion,” she said. “We don’t know what’s com­ing through the door the next day, and we need to be pre­pared.”

By 7:30 a.m., there were vi­o­lence-pre­ven­tion spe­cial­ists posted at bus stops in Gilpin Court and at schools the com­mu­nity feeds into, in ad­di­tion to cri­sis teams sta­tioned in the af­fected schools.

The city’s pub­lic school sys­tem has 20 psy­chol­o­gists, 25 so­cial work­ers and four vi­o­lence-pre­ven­tion spe­cial­ists on staff to help man­age crises, in ad­di­tion to guid­ance coun­selors in ev­ery school.

But it’s not al­ways enough to man­age day-to-day chal­lenges and re­spond to emer­gen­cies, Jones said.

Mon­day was the fifth day of school. One Overby-Shep­pard Ele­men­tary stu­dent was be­ing buried af­ter be­ing hit by a train, an­other was await­ing surgery from the week­end’s shoot­ings, and an un­told num­ber of stu­dents with con­nec­tions to the nine adults slain in the past eight days were about to walk through the front doors.

Jones wasn’t sure what to ex­pect, but she knew much of the pain would be hid­den.

“What’s go­ing on in our com­mu­ni­ties right now is so over­whelm­ing for our chil­dren that we are see­ing out­ward ex­pres­sions of them maybe hav­ing no re­sponse, but it’s play­ing out in dif­fer­ent ways,” Jones said. “They can’t fo­cus at school, they’re fight­ing at the slight­est provo­ca­tion. We can’t ex­pect them to come sit down and read when they’re think­ing about the gun­shots and screams they heard last night.”

The only out­burst seen by Mike Lig­gans, a vi­o­len­cepre­ven­tion and at­ten­dance spe­cial­ist who spent the morn­ing in Gilpin, was from a kinder­gart­ner up­set that he had a new bus driver.

“A lot of par­ents were very con­cerned about the vi­o­lence in their neigh­bor­hood,” Lig­gans said. “But (the kids) pretty much sub­due it and don’t talk about it much.”

As Lig­gans walked the court, his col­league Charles John­son sta­tioned him­self in­side the front en­trance of John Mar­shall High School.

“You’re look­ing for the pulse in the build­ing,” said John­son, whose back­ground is in men­tal health. “Are they ag­i­tated, are they look­ing to phys­i­cally re­spond to the slight­est thing?”

When that hap­pens, he tells them it’s go­ing to be a good day. If that doesn’t work, stu­dents may be pulled aside for some one-on-one time to talk things through.

“Our young peo­ple are starv­ing for guid­ance and struc­ture, whether they re­al­ize it or not,” John­son said. “They need to know that we care about them.”

Know­ing which stu­dents are in need has become in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult as the way chil­dren ex­press their pain has shifted, Jones said.

“For some of our kids, it means they skipped break­fast that morn­ing. They couldn’t eat,” she said. “Or they come in su­per hyped up — you can hear it in their voice, ‘Oh, did you see that? Did you hear what hap­pened?’ ”

Jones drove an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old home from Al­bert Hill Mid­dle School on Mon­day af­ter the two boys were in­volved in sep­a­rate fights. They each live in Gilpin, and nei­ther men­tioned the slay­ings un­til Jones asked.

“They’re act­ing like noth­ing’s wrong, and I said, ‘You guys had a rough week­end — it must have been kind of scary. Did you hear any­thing?’ ” she said. “And they said, ‘Yeah, kinda, sorta. I heard some­thing. I heard a lot.’ ”

Jones loses sleep over how many of Rich­mond’s youth are hear­ing and see­ing too much.

For the Harpers, Sept. 9 came long af­ter the shell cas­ings found in the al­ley and the bod­ies found down the street and across the way; long af­ter the threat­ened ab­duc­tion of the fam­ily’s then-15-year-old daugh­ter last year; and long af­ter the bul­lets sprayed into their sons’ parked cars.

Yet Bethany Harper in­sists she’s OK. “I just want (the shoot­ers) to know that what they did was re­ally wrong,” she said. “There were so many kids on the porch, and they hadn’t done any­thing; This could have hap­pened to any­body.”

“What’s go­ing on in our com­mu­ni­ties right now is so over­whelm­ing for our chil­dren. ... They can’t fo­cus at school, they’re fight­ing at the slight­est provo­ca­tion. We can’t ex­pect them to come sit down and read when they’re think­ing about the gun­shots and screams they heard last night.”


ABOVE: Thomas Harper of Rich­mond sits on his porch in the 3200 block of Fifth Av­enue, where his daugh­ter and a friend were sit­ting when there were shots from across the street. So­lai Cole­man was shot in the hip in the spot where Harper is sit­ting. His...

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