Germs, Guns and Schools

by  James A. Bacon

Twenty days into the school year, more than one in five (21.2%) of students in Richmond Public Schools have been chronically absent, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Chronic absenteeism has always been a problem in the school system, but it’s worse in 2020 — up three percentage points from last year.

This data is worth examining for at least two reasons: (1) for what it tells us about unintended consequences of the Richmond district’s approach to handling the epidemic, and (2) for what it reveals about increasing violence in Richmond’s inner city.

The epidemic. Administrators attribute the high absenteeism in part to the virtual instruction and lack of supervision, mainly at the elementary school level, the RTD reports. Said Harry Hughes, RPS chief of schools: “We are operating virtually in the middle of a health pandemic. COVID has exacerbated an existing problem, and made it much worse.”

The surge in absenteeism has been driven by 13 elementary schools and one middle school. As foreseen by many, the decision to shift from in-person learning to online learning was problematic for kids from poor, single-parent households, many of which lacked Internet access and/or whose working parent was unable to supervise their children at home.

Some students have had trouble logging on, and teachers often don’t find out about technical issues for days, the RTD says. While Richmond schools does arrange for day care at schools, some parents have opted out for fear that the children might bring COVID-19 back home to vulnerable family members. This has all been widely reported, so none of it comes as a surprise.

Gun violence. Here is what startled me: Administrators blamed many absences on an increase in daytime crime.

Cheryl Burke, who represents the 7th District on the School Board, said she has been doing her due diligence to learn more about the crime happening in the East End, where she lives. She said she was not surprised to hear that families have stopped sending their students to learning pods in the East End because of gun violence.

“Some parents have shared with me that … they have children sleeping on the floor. They have beds, but because of the gun violence going on … they’re sleeping on the floor because they’re so terrified,” Burke said in an interview. “I’m heartbroken about my children not being safe, because they deserve so much better.”

By some measures, crime in the City of Richmond is falling this year. The number of rapes, robberies and assaults was down through Oct. 18 compared to the same period in 2019. However, gun crimes are an exception to the broader trend. Murders are up 13% this year: 53 as of Oct. 18 compared to the 47 at same point last year, according to police data. The number of firearm victims (listed as “victims shot”) was up by four to 186.

The gun violence is not like the old days when crack dealers shot other crack dealers in turf battles. The shooting is increasingly indiscriminate. Several shooting victims this year have been children.

As the school-absenteeism story informs us, the number of crime “victims” is much larger than the number of individuals shot with guns and recorded in police blotters. Fear of gun violence (and COVID-19) is so rampant in Richmond that children are sleeping on floors and parents fear to send them to day care.

While Richmond-area social justice warriors continue to protest the death of Marcus David Peters, a mentally ill man slain last year when he threatened police, we hear nothing from them about the thousands of city residents living in fear of crime. There is something very wrong when fear of crime interferes with learning. And there is something very wrong about those who are indifferent to that fear.