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Richmond student faced violence before graduation slaying, report says

“He was in the class with people who literally tried to kill him,” Shawn Jackson’s mother wrote to a school staffer four months before he was fatally shot

Two people were killed and several people injured in a shooting outside Altria Theater after the Huguenot High School graduation ceremony in Richmond, Va., on June 6. (Parker Michels-Boyce for The Washington Post)
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An investigation into a deadly shooting at a Richmond high school graduation in June found that school staff were told that a victim’s home had been shot at by other students in recent years, but failed to alert others about threats toward his safety.

The report also said Shawn Jackson, 18, who was killed, was allowed to attend the Huguenot High School graduation without proper authorization. At the time, Jackson was home-schooled and would have needed permission from the principal or a designee to attend, according to the report.

The graduation also lacked adequate safety measures, according to the external investigation.

A judge made public the report by a law firm hired by the Richmond City School Board to examine its handling of the shooting. Jackson’s stepfather, Renzo Smith, also was slain. Five other people were shot in the incident and others were injured, including Jackson’s younger sister.

Officials have charged Amari Ty-Jon Pollard, 20, with first-degree murder in connection with Jackson’s killing. His trial is scheduled to occur in February, court records show. No one is charged in Smith’s slaying, or for wounding five others at graduation.

This school tried to keep kids safe. Then graduation ended in gunfire.

The incident thrust the city’s violence into national news, sparking cries for officials to better protect students. Along with the external investigation, Richmond Public Schools conducted an internal investigation into the shooting, which The Washington Post obtained an unredacted copy of in November. But the Richmond school board initially declined to release the external report after it was completed in the fall citing, in part, concerns that it included legal guidance exempt from release and a desire not to jeopardize the criminal proceedings.

A judge this week ordered a release of the report with “minimal” redactions following a lawsuit initially filed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It was released on Wednesday.

“Transparency is critical for a public entity like RPS and we look forward to sharing the information included in this report,” School Board Chair Stephanie Rizzi, Vice Chair Elizabeth Doerr and Superintendent Jason Kamras wrote in a joint statement Wednesday.

The external report examined whether school staff adequately followed protocols to help protect from threats of violence at school and the graduation. More than 300 graduates and 3,600 guests were anticipated at the June 6 ceremony, the report said. But attendees reported that metal detectors were seen not working properly at Altria Theater, where the ceremony occurred. Few staff manned the entrances and exits, the report said. The only security presence outside the venue as attendees exited were five off-duty police officers and three off-duty first responders, which investigators found inadequate given the expected crowd size.

There were also roughly 22 unarmed safety personnel at the theater. However, the report said, none of these safety staff at the theater knew Jackson had potentially faced threats to his safety.

Tameeka Jackson-Smith, the teen’s mother, previously told The Post that her son attended Richmond Virtual Academy, which allows students to attend classes virtually. At the time, Jackson-Smith said her son enrolled in the virtual program because Renzo Smith was immunocompromised.

But according to the report, a counselor said Jackson enrolled in the virtual program because of “ongoing mental health issues as well as the threat of neighborhood violence stemming from his association with another student [who] was involved in a crime.” The report said Jackson-Smith told Monique Harris, a school guidance counselor, in November 2021 that the family was in hiding after an incident between Jackson and a friend. Harris referred her and Jackson to an assistant principal.

The following June, Jackson-Smith said the family was homeless from their “home being shot up” by Huguenot students in an email to Harris, Huguenot High School Principal Robert Gilstrap and Kamras. After the email, Harris offered support and said Jackson could become a homebound — or home-schooled — student, according to the report. However, the report said no safety personnel were told of the shooting incident.

The report said Jackson-Smith’s worries persisted. In February, after her son went to Huguenot High School to take a test, Jackson-Smith wrote to Harris: “I thought when [Jackson] came there to test he would be isolated. He was in the class with people who literally tried to kill him,” according to the report.

A mother saw her son’s fatal shooting — at his high school graduation

Investigators at the law firm examining the shooting asked Harris if she reported the threatening behavior, which she is mandated to do, according to a threat assessment handbook. The report said that Harris told them no, saying that Jackson and the unidentified student — called “Student X” in the report — were separated for the remainder of their time in school up until graduation.

Jason Anthony, Pollard’s attorney, said his client was not “Student X.” Pollard was not enrolled at Huguenot High School at the time the incident occurred.

“The case has taken an entirely new turn,” Anthony said of the law firm’s report. “Now we understand that Mr. Jackson felt ill-treated and that someone was threatening his life who is not Mr. Pollard.”

In an interview with The Post this week, Jackson-Smith said she remembered writing to Harris along with Gilstrap and Kamras. She said she wanted it to be known that her son was not safe at school.

“I really was open with them,” she said. “I really fight for my children — that’s the type of mother I am. I was communicative with her, and she was communicative back. I just thought everyone else knew, and that she was telling others.”

Harris declined to comment on the report.

He fought hard to get to graduation. He was killed after the ceremony.

Before the graduation ceremony, the report said Harris told Jackson-Smith that her son did not have to attend graduation practice and could come solely to the ceremony. “I will just squeeze him in if you feel [the graduation practice] is too dangerous,” Harris wrote.

The report said she lacked the authority to make these decisions. Investigators said that at the time of the shooting, only a principal or a person designated by the principal could allow a virtual student to attend school events. The report said nothing suggested that Gilstrap authorized Harris to make the decision. Harris told investigators she didn’t consult Gilstrap in her decision. In early November, the Richmond school board changed its policy to say only a principal, superintendent or a representative of the superintendent can decide whether a homebound student can participate in school activities.

The district’s internal report said the counselor had been a designee, but the superintendent wrote in a November memo to the law firm that officials were unable to confirm she had that discretion.

In an interview with The Post, Gilstrap said that Harris had the authority to decide. “We had three counselors for seniors,” he said. “Each counselor had the authority to tell me that a kid was ready for graduation.”

“I think it’s highly inappropriate to characterize Ms. Harris in a villainous way in any of this,” Gilstrap said. “She works with so many kids and families in difficult situations. She had probably 20 kids who were deeply struggling … with mental health struggles, with violence in their neighborhood. It is sad that a report would make her culpable in this horrible event.”

2 fatally shot, several injured after high school graduation in Richmond

The report also raised questions about Gilstrap’s leadership, saying another top administrator had described him as “checked out,” and “a principal who didn’t provide leadership and direction to building staff, took a laissez-faire approach to managing the building” and who “was not fully present’ in the role and was looking for another job.” Gilstrap took a job in the Virginia Department of Education in August.

Gilstrap declined to be interviewed for the external investigation, according to the report. But he rebuffed the claim to a Post reporter.

“Right up until the moment that the gunshot went off, I was passionate and super involved,” he said.

On the day of graduation, the report said Jackson arrived at the theater late, and briefly spoke to Gilstrap before filing into the line of graduates. Pollard’s attorney said his client had gone to the theater to see his cousin graduate.

After the ceremony, Jackson’s mother has said Jackson hugged his family and cheered before walking away. Shots were fired soon after. Jackson-Smith was not interviewed for the external report. She says she replied to the law firm about the investigation but did not hear back.

“I am so tired. I am so, so tired,” Jackson-Smith said this week. “He worked hard. He did what he had to do. He walked across the stage. I just want this to be over with.”