The Washington Post spent a year inside one Richmond high school trying a host of strategies to protect children from gun violence. Are they working?
“Jaden,” Bailey remembers his teacher saying, “he passed away.”
Bailey went blank, unable to believe it — and later, in a phone call to his mother, unable to stop sobbing. But for Short, who planned to sit in Jaden’s seat through every class he would have taken, it was just another day at work.
It’s her job to do this: After a student dies, she follows in their footsteps, lacing up sneakers, pursuing their class schedule, comforting their friends and directing people to mental health services as needed. That day, she had left her official Richmond badge at home and dressed as a student — to put high-schoolers at ease.
The Richmond district created Short’s role, which looks nothing like what schools have traditionally done, as part of a step-by-step, intricate response officials here have developed to handle an increasingly unmanageable load of pain, violence and trauma.
Virginia’s capital is facing an epidemic of youth gun violence. In the past three years, almost 30 Richmond students died in gunfire, according to the school system. The city’s rate of young people killed by guns spiked to three times the national average in 2017. In 2022 alone, there were 22 children under 18 injured by gunfire and five shot to death, according to Richmond police.
The superintendent, Jason Kamras, said so many students have died that he now maps the city by the locations of vigils he has attended honoring dead children. He said he feels relief when he learns of a shooting that did not result in a student’s death.
“It’s almost like … we find some joy in the fact that at least it wasn’t that,” he said. “I mean, what an insane mind frame to have.”
It’s not just Richmond — it’s a national problem. Since 2020, guns have become the leading cause of death among children and teens, with Black youths dying in firearm homicides at the highest rates. The pandemic made things worse, fueling a spike in violence: There were more school shootings in 2022 than in any year since 1999, according to a Washington Post database. Then there are the threats posted on Instagram, student beefs that spill into school hallways and random neighborhood shootings that leave children cowering on the floors of their bedrooms, too scared to attend class the next day. Taken together, guns are reshaping every aspect of American education.
Educators often feel they are charged with keeping students alive, not just instructing them.
To prevent the trauma, and respond to it when they can’t, schools are racing to innovate. The Post spent a year inside Richmond’s Huguenot High School to document how one campus is approaching this intractable problem. It was a difficult and tragic stretch for Huguenot, which serves roughly 1,500 students: In 2022-2023, the school saw two students shot to death, another wounded by gunfire and a third accused of shooting his sister, according to more than a dozen people associated with the district. The Post followed administrators, teachers, students and parents from the moment of Jaden’s death in January to Huguenot’s graduation in June, when another student died in a spray of bullets as he emerged from the ceremony.
In the hours after Jaden was shot, staffers with mental health training turned an empty conference into a “war room,” from which they monitored students’ and teachers’ well-being. The principal decided how to inform the school at large, weighing the need for an all-school announcement against the fact students were taking a state test that day. And the Huguenot school resource officer paced the hallways on alert, listening for what the high-schoolers were saying — especially Jaden’s friends.
Meanwhile, Short kept switching from one empty seat to another. When one of Jaden’s teachers broke down as he tried to tell students what happened, she took over the class. She asked students how they were feeling, receiving little in response from teens who seemed numb, she said.
Through it all, Short said, she was never overcome.
“It comes with experience,” she said. “Because I’ve been doing it so long.”
Hunting for ‘the secret sauce’
Richmond’s strategy for student safety mixes traditional elements, such as school police officers, with newer ideas — like Short’s job shadowing dead students.
Starting in 2018, the district reorganized its staffing and systems to become “trauma-informed,” an approach that emphasizes responding to students with empathy. This meant training educators how to handle children’s emotional breakdowns, hiring more mental health and social workers and establishing districtwide and school-based “crisis response” teams. These include psychologists and behavioral specialists. The day after Jaden died, leaders of the districtwide team traveled to Huguenot’s campus and set up camp in an empty conference room, waiting to see if anyone needed help.
Under the new approach, Richmond converted spaces once used for student suspensions into “restorative rooms,” where children could go to calm down if they were disrupting class. It turned school security staffers into “care and safety associates,” dressing them in casual polos and tasking them with bonding with students. And the district launched daily “community circles” in which students share issues they are facing inside and outside the classroom.
In one such circle last year, a group at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School discussed how guns shape their lives.
“In my neighborhood, there’s so much gunshots that I’m scared to go outside,” one said.
“I was playing my game in my room [when] they started shooting,” another said, adding that a bullet came through his window. “We all turned the lights off.”
A conversation cannot stop a bullet. But, by paying more attention to students’ mental health, the district believes it can prevent some crises from arising. Much of this thinking emerged from a 1998 medical study that showed how traumatic childhood experiences — including a home life filled with abuse or violence — can derail entire lives. Starting in the 2000s, a variety of studies and books emerged suggesting models for how schools can account for students’ trauma, from making classrooms feel safer to suggesting teachers ask “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?”
Ideas like these are catching on nationwide. Schools around the country now deploy community circles as an alternative to traditional forms of discipline, asking offenders to confront the harm they’ve caused and apologize to victims. Last year, Baltimore began hiring school-based “violence interrupters,” staff trained to de-escalate conflict. New York City school officials are spending $15 million on a program that brings in neighborhood leaders to help stop student violence. And New Orleans is investing $10 million in school mental health after a survey found 54 percent of youth had experienced the murder of someone close to them.
In Richmond, another “trauma-informed” effort is Huguenot’s “healing lounge,” where stressed students can go to talk and relax with social worker Whitney Wilson. Wilson decorated the room with bright colors, flowery smells and lots of posters, one of which asked students to “Be a bestie, not a bully.” She placed three couches in a semicircle and stacked them with pillows, stationing makeup wipes and mirrors nearby so tearful girls could repair their mascara before returning to class.
Wilson also stocked fidget toys, including stress balls and Play-Doh. She had noticed that teens liked to play with the toys when they were anxious or nervous. “Anything they can put in their hand, [to] help them relax and talk and share, makes them feel more comfortable,” she said.
The morning after Jaden died, Wilson came to school girding for a long, hard day. She had known Jaden: a bright, short student with a deep voice, who walked with a bounce and talked about becoming an electrician after he graduated. She pushed away her sadness so she could support his friends. But almost no teens came to see her — only two male students who asked to leave class so they could wander the building. They told her they didn’t want to talk. Otherwise, two teachers stopped in, crying. She gave both hugs.
Wilson was not surprised by the lack of reaction from high-schoolers: “When things like this happen … they either do not come,” she said, “or they may not express.”
Bailey, Jaden’s childhood friend, was among those who chose to forgo the school’s mental health services as he came to grips with the death. He preferred to talk to his grandmother and a family friend rather than an adult he didn’t know.
Short, the instructional specialist, said she did not refer anyone to counseling that day, because nobody asked for it. “I don’t want to say they expect it to happen,” she said of Huguenot students. “But it’s like they’ve got adjusted to hearing that people are passing away.”
“It’s like they’ve got adjusted to hearing that people are passing away.”
— Tess Short
It remains unclear whether the district’s new tactics are working, said Angela Ransom Jones, Richmond’s director of culture, climate and student services who heads the trauma response team. Her job encompasses everything from 5:30 a.m. check-in calls with Richmond Police Capt. Daniel Minton to home visits to students who have threatened — or risk becoming victims of — violence.
She pointed to one measure of success at Huguenot: Graduation rates have risen almost 10 percentage points over the past four years. But overall, Jones said, “We don’t have the secret sauce quite yet.”
The efficacy of schools’ trauma-informed approach remains unclear. A 2022 study published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma concluded there is a “dearth of robust research designs evaluating the implementation of trauma-informed care … within the education system.” But the approach can “lead to improved staff well-being,” the study noted, given some early evidence that trauma-informed training boosts teachers’ attitudes, effectiveness and preparedness.
In Richmond, Jones will have to come up with a more definite answer soon. Richmond funded much of its trauma-related work with pandemic dollars — money given by the state and federal government to help schools cope with virus chaos. It must be spent by September of next year. At that point, the district will have to decide what to keep and what to eliminate, including mental health staff positions. Pandemic cash had enabled the hiring of an additional eight counselors, two psychologists and three social workers across the district.
The school “board has to make some really tough, tough decisions,” Jones said. “I think we need every single one of those positions right now.”
Keeping students breathing
In its bid to keep campuses safe, the Richmond district also employs more typical safety measures, placing metal detectors and video cameras on campuses. It relies on a tracking mechanism called Gaggle to flag concerning words students type in chats or Google searches. And it stations specially trained police, known as school resource officers, at three middle schools and most high schools, including Huguenot.
Yet what those officers — and other educators — do has shifted. It has become part of their jobs, Huguenot staff said, to try to keep children alive.
Huguenot’s resource officer last year was Willie Ruffin, Jr., known as “Ruff” to high-schoolers. For a long time, he started his days the same way: walking the hallways to greet students, asking how their nights went and generally taking the “pulse” of the campus, he said.
But, as conflicts surged post-pandemic, Ruffin learned to look for specific details — starting with female students’ hairdos. For example, if someone with long hair has gathered it into a bun or behind a tightly tied hoodie, Ruffin said, she may be prepping for a fight. Another telltale sign is whether teens’ Crocs are in “sports mode,” with the straps flipped back to hug students’ heels. Crocs worn that way make it easier to run from a conflict — or toward one.
“It’s little stuff like that,” Ruffin said, as he roamed a noisy hallway in June.
He also found himself mentoring students who seemed headed down the wrong path, whose names showed up in his email inbox after run-ins with the law. Ruffin said Jaden appeared in his email in fall 2021, when police sent him security footage that showed someone who looked exactly like Jaden near the scene of an armed robbery near a school. Not long after that, Ruffin said, Jaden was suspended for getting in a fight at Huguenot.
“Sometimes, it requires you to turn off the ‘cops and robbers’ mentality and be a father, or be a counselor, or be a therapist or just be a friend.”
— Willie Ruffin Jr., Huguenot High School resource officer
After the suspension, Ruffin said, he pulled Jaden aside for a private conversation and urged the teen to reconsider his choices. Jaden said he didn’t commit the crime; he was “just there” during the robbery, Ruffin recalled. Ruffin tried not to judge.
“Sometimes, it requires you to turn off the ‘cops and robbers’ mentality and be a father, or be a counselor, or be a therapist or just be a friend,” Ruffin said. “Just listen.”
Ruffin said he didn’t hear about Jaden from police for more than a year after that — until the teen was shot.
In late October, Richmond police told The Post they determined that Jaden’s killing was a “justifiable homicide,” meaning the person who killed him was acting in self-defense, did nothing to draw an attack and cannot be held criminally liable. Jaden had been attempting to rob another young man that night, police spokesman James Mercante said in an interview. Jaden shot the man before he returned fire, killing Jaden, Mercante said.
Jaden’s mother, Joyce Carter, said she struggles with what to believe about the night her son died. She was very close to Jaden, her third and youngest child with whom she shared a birthday.
Carter does not want to think Jaden shot someone. She has heard another version of events, she said, in which her son was shot first.
“The one thing that doesn’t change in all of that — me second-guessing and wondering — [is that] I still love my son,” she said. “But it makes you wonder. … Who’s really lying?”
Dealing with students like Jaden at Huguenot, school principal Robert Gilstrap has also had to reimagine his responsibilities. Last year marked his seventh year in the role. Things were different when he started, he said: Although Richmond was plagued by adult violence, far fewer children died in gunfire.
Now, though, being principal means sitting down with teens who are skipping class and warning them away from lifestyles filled with violence, guns and drugs. Gilstrap recalled talking to one boy at length a few months before he killed his girlfriend, then himself.
“I was very sad that the girlfriend died, but I was just as sad that he died,” Gilstrap said. “While he was still alive, he still had a chance to turn his life around. I’m not going to give up on anybody as long as they’re still breathing.”
Angela Brown, a veteran educator who taught Jaden English last year, said she was talking to Jaden’s classmates about their futures the day before Jaden was killed.
Hoping to inspire aspirations beyond Richmond, she exhorted the teens to envision what they might do after high school, where else they could live. She said that, after graduation, her students would never see many of their classmates again: Some would go to college. Some to work. And some, she warned, might die.
“I hate the fact that I’m going to say this,” Brown said in a later interview, “but Jaden’s death was almost solidifying what I had just told them the day before. … I’m praying that the lightbulb went off after that conversation.”
Huguenot students carried Jaden’s death with them through the end of the school year.
Jaden’s shooting was “too close” to campus, leaving high-schoolers on edge, said then-sophomore Nathen Muñoz. Terriel Williams-Ford, also a sophomore at the time, said hearing teachers announce Jaden’s death made him fear he could be shot anywhere, any time.Nowhere felt safe, he said, if school didn’t.
Ca’Miyah King, a senior last year who rode the bus with Jaden, said she felt his absence every morning. Before he died, his deep voice used to fill the whole bus, she said.
“He was so loud, and he was so bubbly,” she said. “When he passed away, it was just so silent. It was like nobody was laughing anymore for a long, long time.”
Things got worse after graduation, which was supposed to mark a healing moment of celebration after a tough year.
Instead, a former Richmond student opened fire just after the ceremony, killing just-graduated Shawn Jackson, 18, and his stepfather outside Altria Theater in downtown Richmond. Five other people were shot and several more were injured, including Jackson’s little sister, hit by a car as the 9-year-old tried to run to her father.
Ruffin found himself on his knees, trying to plug holes in Jackson’s neck. He threw away his blood-soaked gloves that night. Gilstrap, still in his black academic robes, had to coax Jackson’s cousin away from the teen’s body, clearing the way for medics.
The district later investigated what went wrong at graduation. Its report, obtained by The Post, concluded that Jackson had been homebound because of mental health challenges. According to a local news station, CBS6, his friends also had an ongoing dispute with another group. Officials worried it could lead to violence.
The Richmond report said a school counselor, acting as Gilstrap’s designee, approved Jackson’s attendance at graduation. It proposed that, in the future, principals personally approve every student for graduation. In November, the district passed a new policy mandating that homebound students can attend commencement ceremonies only with the sign-off of their school principal, the superintendent or the superintendent’s designee, based on the recommendation of a licensed medical provider.
Not long after the shooting, Wilson, the social worker, sent in a letter of resignation, warning that the district must hire more mental health professionals. Brown, the English teacher who taught Jaden — and also Jackson — vowed she would never become close to a student again, or attend a graduation. Gilstrap started therapy and, later in the summer, accepted a job with the Virginia Education Department.
Serving as Huguenot’s principal had become “all-consuming, lonely, emotionally disruptive, physically debilitating,” Gilstrap said. “I think it’s too much sadness.”
Ruffin doesn’t work at Huguenot anymore, either. Police rotated him to another unit. He keeps up with what’s happening on campus, though. When Ruffin learned how Jaden died, it made him think of all the people he knew caught in similar situations.
Other Huguenot students. Ruffin’s friends. His family members, including one who is serving life in prison.
Ruffin grew up in a Bronx neighborhood similar to Jaden’s, he said, plagued by drugs, guns and violence. For a time, he was tempted to participate: “I had to make a choice, like Jaden,” he said.
Jaden made the wrong choice, Ruffin said — but that doesn’t make his death less sad. It’s tragic for Jaden, and the life he could have had. It’s tragic for his family. It’s tragic for the person who shot and killed him, and now has to live with that.And it’s tragic to Ruffin.
“I have to look at it from the human standpoint,” Ruffin said, “because that could have been me.”
Story editing by Adam B. Kushner. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Jordan Melendrez. Design by Jennifer C. Reed.