Inches and chance were all that separated Bethany Harper, 12, from the bullets that ripped through her family’s front porch on Fifth Avenue on Sept. 9.
The same spared her 9-year-old friend, Solai Coleman, from worse than a bullet lodged in her hip. It was headed for the Overby-Sheppard Elementary School student’s chest when she jumped at the crackling pop of gunfire.
“It was so scary,” Bethany said. “After (Solai) told me she got shot, I couldn’t stop crying.”
Maybe it was luck that saved them. Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was the framed words of the Great Commandment, hanging above their heads like a talisman as the girls shared the seat of a white metal chair and a laugh with friends on a crisp late summer night.
Harper’s father isn’t sure. But he does know that whatever led to the bullets piercing his porch and front window is only the latest in a string of violent incidents that saw his daughter nearly join the list of those shot or slain over eight days of mayhem that left nine dead across the city of Richmond.
“We had nothing to do with the transaction (that led to the shooting) Saturday, but they shot at our children — children,” said Thomas Harper. “We have a new rule in this house: ‘You’re not allowed to go beyond this line,’ ” he said, planting his foot on the front of the family’s wooden porch.
Experts in childhood trauma warn that the recent rash of violence affects not only those directly involved, but also those growing up in and around neighborhoods seared by gunfire and crisscrossed by yellow crime-scene tape.
In Richmond, the number of children whose lives have been interrupted is growing, and they carry the weight of those experiences through the doors of city schools and into their classrooms.
Bethany returned to Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School on Monday, 36 hours after escaping death. Classes also resumed for the hundreds of children who woke up in Gilpin Court last Sunday to find their neighborhoods overrun by police investigating four slayings.
It wasn’t easy, Bethany said later, fiddling with the hem of her jacket sleeve.
“In my head, I was just thinking about her,” she said of Solai, who spent the better part of a week waiting on surgery to have the bullet removed from her hip. “My teacher had to come tell me to focus.”
The killings last weekend pushed to 59 the number of lives cut short by violence in Richmond in 2017, compared with 45 at that point last year, which was the worst in a decade.
It was midway through 2016 when former Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden issued an emergency plea for help addressing the routine trauma in many of his students’ lives.
The division joined forces with the Robins Foundation and nonprofits ChildSavers and Stop Child Abuse Now to launch a pilot program this year in the city’s East End schools, where the need is acute.
The 2016-17 school year saw 25 students shot, along with the 1-year-old child of two students. Fourteen others were victims of aggravated assault or malicious wounding. Nine additional students died in shootings or vehicle-related incidents, according to division data.
Angela Jones, director of student services at the division’s Office of Family and Community Engagement, gets a text each time, most often from Richmond police Capt. Daniel Minton.
Her phone began lighting up last Sunday while she was cooking breakfast.
“In this particular case, it was a bad, bad situation,” she said. “We don’t know what’s coming through the door the next day, and we need to be prepared.”
By 7:30 a.m., there were violence-prevention specialists posted at bus stops in Gilpin Court and at schools the community feeds into, in addition to crisis teams stationed in the affected schools.
The city’s public school system has 20 psychologists, 25 social workers and four violence-prevention specialists on staff to help manage crises, in addition to guidance counselors in every school.
But it’s not always enough to manage day-to-day challenges and respond to emergencies, Jones said.
Monday was the fifth day of school. One Overby-Sheppard Elementary student was being buried after being hit by a train, another was awaiting surgery from the weekend’s shootings, and an untold number of students with connections to the nine adults slain in the past eight days were about to walk through the front doors.
Jones wasn’t sure what to expect, but she knew much of the pain would be hidden.
“What’s going on in our communities right now is so overwhelming for our children that we are seeing outward expressions of them maybe having no response, but it’s playing out in different ways,” Jones said. “They can’t focus at school, they’re fighting at the slightest provocation. We can’t expect them to come sit down and read when they’re thinking about the gunshots and screams they heard last night.”
The only outburst seen by Mike Liggans, a violence-prevention and attendance specialist who spent the morning in Gilpin, was from a kindergartner upset that he had a new bus driver.
“A lot of parents were very concerned about the violence in their neighborhood,” Liggans said. “But (the kids) pretty much subdue it and don’t talk about it much.”
As Liggans walked the court, his colleague Charles Johnson stationed himself inside the front entrance of John Marshall High School.
“You’re looking for the pulse in the building,” said Johnson, whose background is in mental health. “Are they agitated, are they looking to physically respond to the slightest thing?”
When that happens, he tells them it’s going to be a good day. If that doesn’t work, students may be pulled aside for some one-on-one time to talk things through.
“Our young people are starving for guidance and structure, whether they realize it or not,” Johnson said. “They need to know that we care about them.”
Knowing which students are in need has become increasingly difficult as the way children express their pain has shifted, Jones said.
“For some of our kids, it means they skipped breakfast that morning. They couldn’t eat,” she said. “Or they come in super hyped up — you can hear it in their voice, ‘Oh, did you see that? Did you hear what happened?’ ”
Jones drove an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old home from Albert Hill Middle School on Monday after the two boys were involved in separate fights. They each live in Gilpin, and neither mentioned the slayings until Jones asked.
“They’re acting like nothing’s wrong, and I said, ‘You guys had a rough weekend — it must have been kind of scary. Did you hear anything?’ ” she said. “And they said, ‘Yeah, kinda, sorta. I heard something. I heard a lot.’ ”
Jones loses sleep over how many of Richmond’s youth are hearing and seeing too much.
For the Harpers, Sept. 9 came long after the shell casings found in the alley and the bodies found down the street and across the way; long after the threatened abduction of the family’s then-15-year-old daughter last year; and long after the bullets sprayed into their sons’ parked cars.
Yet Bethany Harper insists she’s OK.
“I just want (the shooters) to know that what they did was really wrong,” she said. “There were so many kids on the porch, and they hadn’t done anything; This could have happened to anybody.”
Staff writer Ali Rockett contributed to this report.