An 18-year-old student fatally shot last year after his high school graduation in Virginia had been kept home for months because of fears for his safety but was still allowed to attend commencement ceremonies, according to report released Wednesday.
The report, prepared by a law firm at the request of Richmond Public Schools, found that the decision to allow Shawn Jackson to attend commencement for Huguenot High School occurred despite regulations barring homebound students from participating in school-sponsored activities without permission from a school principal or their designee.
Jackson and his stepfather, Lorenzo Smith, 36, were shot and killed in June 2023 at the conclusion of graduation ceremonies outside Richmond’s Altria Theater, located on the outskirts of Virginia Commonwealth University. Five other people were wounded by gunfire, and at least 12 more suffered other injuries or were treated for anxiety due to the mayhem, police said.
Amari Pollard, 19, who graduated alongside Jackson, is jailed awaiting trial on murder charges for Jackson’s death.
Richmond Public Schools released the 29-page report along with thousands of pages of supporting interview transcripts and documents investigating what occurred. A judge ordered the report’s release Tuesday after the school board voted against making the report public.
The report shows that Jackson’s mother was concerned enough about her son’s safety that she emailed a counselor a week before the shooting asking if her son could skip the graduation rehearsal practices. A school counselor advised the mother that she would squeeze Jackson into the commencement without attending the required rehearsals “if you feel that it’s too dangerous.”
Four months before the shooting, the mother sent an email complaining about safety procedures when her son had to attend the school in person to take a test.
“He was in the class with people who literally tried to kill him,” she wrote.
And a year before the shooting, she indicated to the same counselor and the school principal that “we are still homeless from our home being shot up, by students in Huguenot.”
In a phone interview, the former principal, Robert Gilstrap, said it was unfair of the report to blame him or the counselor allowing Jackson to attend graduation.
“The entire mission we were given in my years there is, ‘We need to get these kids to graduate,’” said Gilstrap, who is now an assistant superintendent with the Virginia Department of Education. He said his understanding was that the dispute between Pollard and Jackson was something that stretched back to their freshman year, and he said he was not made aware that the mother had expressed fresh concerns about her son’s safety.
Gilstrap said he was unaware of the report’s release until contacted by a reporter, and he took issue with a description in the report that he was “checked out” as principal around the time of the graduation shooting as he looked for another job.
“I worked there for eight years,” he said. “I was the longest serving principal in Huguenot’s history.”
According to the report, the counselor told investigators that she didn’t consult with the principal before telling the mother that Jackson could attend graduation. But Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said in a reply memo that the school system believes Gilstrap had delegated the authority to decide on Jackson’s participation in graduation ceremonies to the counselor.
The school system did not respond immediately to an email requesting comment about the report’s findings. It did issue a written statement saying in part, “Our shared commitment is to learn from this tragedy and continue to improve in order to further safeguard our students and staff. We already have taken several steps, including updating our policies about who can authorize students to participate in a graduation ceremony.”