About 50 community members met Wednesday at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Richmond’s East End to address recent vandalism at the school and nearby, but they also started a larger conversation about how they can become more involved in the lives of the young people behind the acts.
The meeting was held by the Richmond chapter of the NAACP. The group’s president, James J.J. Minor, said a plan of action is needed to curb not only the acts of vandalism, but also violence in the community.
The middle school and an adjacent preschool center have experienced 10 incidents of vandalism this year, the most recent of which occurred last week, when 21 windows were shot with a BB-style gun. The school system estimated the damage to the windows at $47,000.
“It’s very disconcerting for our teachers and students,” said Richmond school Superintendent Jason Kamras. “It’s also very costly.”
Richmond’s new chief of police, William Smith, said his detectives have identified a group of boys, all younger than 14, who broke the windows.
They won’t be charged and instead were referred to the department’s Life program, a nine-week course that allows young, first-time and nonviolent offenders to be diverted from the juvenile justice system so they won’t face criminal charges.
Elaine Minor, who heads the program for the department, spoke to those gathered Wednesday, who were eager to hear how it would help the children.
“None of us want to lock up or charge a kid that young,” she said. “The schools can’t solve this on their own. The police can’t. Nor can the nonprofits we partner with. That’s why it’s important that you’re here.
“We like to think these kids aren’t doing this because they’re bad kids; they’re doing it because they’re bored or they’re trying to ask for help.”
Ideas for summer programs, such as camping, sports and internships, received high marks from those in attendance.
Where would the money come from for those programs? Those gathered had an answer for that, too: corporate sponsorships.
“We shouldn’t count on the school budget to cover it,” Ray Taalib-Deem Muhammad said.
People also spoke in support of reintroducing home economics into the curriculum to teach children more fiscal responsibility and pride of ownership in their schools. There was also mention of revamping the idea of a PTA to involve more of the community rather than just teachers and parents.
One of the earliest incidents of vandalism at the middle school involved the perpetrator stealing food from the school, which the police chief said raised more red flags than criminal ones.
“If students are hungry, they’re not getting their basic needs met,” said Inett Dabney, the school’s principal. “How do you expect them to take in instruction?”
Dabney said the “elephant” that wasn’t being mentioned was the constant conflicts between the five public housing complexes that feed into the middle school. Young children are being recruited into the neighborhood gangs, she said, and contributing to these issues.
“If we’re going to be real about change, we have to address that,” she said.