RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — School divisions throughout Central Virginia are working to address internal security policies and procedures amid a rash of in-school violence in local academic buildings.

Brookland Middle School in Henrico County was placed under a “lock and teach” after a stabbing on school grounds that sent a juvenile to the hospital with serious injuries Tuesday morning. On Monday, several students at Highland Springs High School, also in Henrico County, had to be treated after a School Resource Officer (SRO) used pepper spray to quell a fight that had broken out.

Also on Monday, Richmond Public Schools (RPS) leaders approved a motion to restrict cell phone usage for secondary students in class, concerned about the repercussions of online access in school.

“There is an enormity of threat, both inside and outside the school building,” RPS School Board Member and 4th District Representative Jonathan Young told 8News on Tuesday. “In a year, we average something like 20,000 incidents. To be clear, not all of them materialize in a melee or all-in assault on a student. But too frequently, they do.”

A presentation heard during Monday night’s RPS School Board meeting revealed that approximately 3,500 alerts of violent messaging toward others via in-school devices were tracked since the start of the academic year.

“Kids are trying to impress each other, and there’s a lot of social anxiety, and the pandemic hasn’t helped with any of it,” RPS School Board Vice Chair and 3rd District Representative Kenya Gibson said. “We’ve all seen these videos of kids — where these massive fights are breaking out at school. Do I think that kids are wanting to be in the videos because it gives some bit of notoriety? Unfortunately, I do.”

But it’s not a problem that only school leaders in the City of Richmond and Henrico County are working to address.

8News also reached out to Chesterfield County Public Schools, as well as Hopewell and Petersburg City Public Schools for information on how many incidents of in-school violence have been reported during this academic year, and what action is being taken to combat that, but is waiting on responses from those school divisions.

However, in Goochland County, a spokesperson sent the following statement to 8News:

Over the summer and into the new school year, Goochland County Public Schools took a proactive approach to re-establishing a high level of expectations for student behavior. Policies were revised to discourage inappropriate behavior through the use of strong consequences, while also establishing structures and strategies that allow students to seek assistance prior to any confrontation taking place. Our school division has had a very strong start as a result of the collective efforts of students, staff, and families who are all working together to create the learning environment our community expects.

In Hanover County, a school division spokesperson said that there have not been “major issues with fights so far this school year.” The spokesperson noted that faculty and staff receive regular training on safety and security plans and best practices.

Regarding internet access and cell phone usage, we recognize that cell phones are valuable communication tools and have a place in our classrooms for instructional purposes. Unless a mobile device is being used for instructional purposes (at the teacher’s discretion), our expectation is that all devices should be silenced and out of sight during classroom instruction.

We have a filtering system for student-issued devices (iboss) that manages internet access both on our campuses and off, allowing access to educational sites while blocking access to content that includes violence, obscene content, malware, etc. We also have many back-end protective measures, such as a closed Google domain, Chromebook security and protections through Google’s domain administration, firewalls, and more. 

Security consultant and law enforcement professional Mike Jones works with several school divisions throughout Virginia. He told 8News Tuesday that students and educators are in an environment of unprecedented toxicity, which may be contributing to the spikes in school violence.

“We always focus on the enemy from without, but we forget about the enemy from within,” he said. “It’s a toxic time that really requires a heightened surveillance and situational awareness from everyone who loves our children.”

Jones said that safety preparedness requires constant training for teachers, staff and other adults in academic buildings on conflict management and de-escalation techniques. He also noted that fights and other instances of in-school violence are most likely to break out during key transition times, such as when students are in their lunch period or transitioning from class to class.

“With all the personalities and the hormones, the normal choice of growing, learning how to deal with people, the angst of adolescence and all those things that build up, and, plus, an ever-increasing presence of social media putting out every school shooting, every incident, it creates a toxic soup environment,” Jones said. “We’ve got students who are coming back for the first time with full school time, instead of a modified time due to COVID. So they’re having to re-learn the aspects of working with their peers, with their teachers, and just the way it is now.”

Young agreed that the presence of social media plays a major role in escalating in-school violence.

“The principal of what was then our largest school in the City of Richmond said to me that 80% of all the incidents in that building originated because of social media and because of cell phones and because students had regular, routine access to cell phones during the day,” he said. “We have to provide students a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance. But our first and foremost responsibility is always to prioritize the safety of our students.”

Young said that, in addition to restricting cell phone and Chromebook usage for secondary students, schools need to uphold strict consequences for inappropriate behavior.

“Our first and foremost responsibility is always to prioritize the safety of our students, and too infrequently are we doing that,” he said. “All we need to do is look at our numbers. The metrics, unfortunately, bear out the consequences of a school district that is unwilling, it seems, to hold folks accountable.”

Gibson referred back to data that was presented to the RPS School Board Monday night, which showed a significant percentage of students and teachers in certain schools who, when surveyed, said that they did not feel safe in their respective academic buildings.

“When it comes to technology, this is something that’s important for both school safety and academics,” she said. “Our kids are just incredibly distracted by these devices, and not necessarily in a good way, and so, really, for me, all options are on the table. If we have to take the cell phones away and that’s the best way to make kids more productive in school and to make our schools safer, then absolutely.”

Despite recent incidents in Henrico County’s academic buildings, Jones said that Henrico and Chesterfield County Public Schools are two divisions that are doing well when it comes to enhanced security protocols and training.

“Training is increasing,” he said. “But, unfortunately, you cannot stop the sudden explosion of violence. That’s why the importance of SROs and SSOs (School Security Officers) in talking to students; the teachers, the para-professionals, the cafeteria workers pick up on that. There are warning signals of an imminent fight. You just need to know how to look for them, and then what to do with them.”