26 RPS students shot last year; district ups counseling budget

Helping children recover from gun violence

RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - It's been nearly two months since two children were shot in a south Richmond park, both hit by stray bullets that police believe were fired from a nearby basketball court.

Nine-year-old Markiya Dickson lost her life. But 11-year-old Jaquez Moses survived.

Jaquez is one of a staggering number of children who suffer from the trauma of gun violence in Richmond. Over this last school year, 26 Richmond Public Schools students were shot and two lost their lives.

Jaquz said his wounds are healing well. His father said the lasting effect is more mental than physical.

He’s doing good," Raquan Moses, Jaquez’s father, said. “Physical pain, he’s not feeling none. It’s the mental thing that’s going on with him."

The scars on Jaquez's arm and chest will be permanent. Raquan is praying his son’s emotional scars won't be.

Jaquez was struck by two bullets in a shootout at a community picnic in Carter Jones Park over Memorial Day Weekend. His hospital room was right next to Markiya’s.

“I think about this every day,” Raquan said. "Why did this happen to my son? Why did it happen?”

Raquan says Jaquez is functioning, but he’s since made his son’s complete emotional recovery his top priority. Raquan has taken weeks off work and rides the city bus with Jaquez to counseling.

“I want his mind to be back where it was at,” Raquan said. “My son said he don’t want to go to the park any more. My son said he’s scared it’s going to happen again. How does that feel for a father to hear?"

The emotional trauma of becoming a victim to gun violence can be more severe than the physical injury.

Bob Nickles is part of a large network of counselors, psychologists and violence specialists who work with Richmond public schools to help children like Jaquez who have experienced a crisis."

A positivity wall in a middle school therapy room is crowded with hope-filled words, like resilient.

“Any time a critical incident happens for a child, we prioritize safety first,” Nickles said. “Healing is hard to come by when things still aren’t safe. Children need predictability, a place to sleep.”

RPS has more than 150 psychologists, therapists, violence specialists and other kinds of counselors on staff. The school system also brings in counselors from other child trauma organizations like Greater Richmond SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now), the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority and ChildSavers, where Nickles is a supervisor focusing on RPS students.

“A lot of the work that’s done in therapy isn’t necessarily verbal," Nickles said. “Sometimes it’s sitting with someone and being together and being safe.”

“I never encourage a child to ‘get over,’” Angela Jones, RPS’s director of culture, climate and student services, said. “I say, ‘We’re going to work together to figure out how we’re going to get through and what we’re not going to allow it to take from you.’”

Jones oversees RPS’ Crisis Response Team, which immediately reaches out to children who’ve been impacted, as well as classmates and families who are also suffering. Richmond Public Schools has increased its budget for crisis response by $250,000 next year for more mental health support services.

“Often the families will reach out to us first to say something awful has just happened and (they) need help,” Jones said.

Children experiencing trauma like gun violence are often in shock and experiencing a range of emotions.

"A lot of the outpouring looks like anger when we really have some underlying anxieties and fears and depressions,” Jones said.

Jones says RPS is aiming to become fully “trauma-informed,” meaning everyone on staff, including teachers and bus drivers, has training in understanding what a child victim is truly experiencing.

“There really are chemical changes that happen to (a victim),” Jones said. “How do we respond? What strategies do we use? How do we shift our questions to not what’s wrong with you but what’s happened to you?”

Jaquez and Raquan are both undergoing therapy sessions every week, which Raquan says will continue as long as necessary.

“I got to go through a whole lot to make sure my son is alright,” Raquan said. “And I’m going to continue to do that until I know that he’s straight.”

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