- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

A standout football running back at Ballou Senior High School, who had expressed concern to his father that his life was in danger because of a dispute with another student, was gunned down between classes yesterday near the first-floor cafeteria of the school in Southeast.

James Richardson, 17, of the 500 block of Atlantic Street SE, was shot in the back at about 10:30 a.m., authorities said. He was flown to the Washington Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead about an hour later.

An 18-year-old student, who was not identified, was grazed by a bullet in his lower left leg and was hospitalized, D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said. He said four other students were taken to hospitals later with symptoms of emotional distress.

The school was locked down immediately after the shooting, and within minutes, scores of anxious parents assembled in front of police lines outside the building. The parents complained that they were not being provided with information about the shootings or access to their children.

In the hours after the shooting, D.C. Council members, community leaders and former Mayor Marion Barry arrived at the school, joining acting schools Superintendent Elfreda W. Massie and Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who called it a “sad, tragic, horrible day in our community.”

The violence yesterday was just the latest incident in what has been a trying school year at Ballou. The school was closed from Oct. 2 to Nov. 5 after a student removed a vial of mercury from an unlocked science classroom, then splattered the toxic substance in the building. Decontamination of the building took more than a month.

The day the school reopened, a man fired a handgun in the direction of the building just before classes let out. And days after that, police responded to the school for a brawl involving 15 students.

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said last night that police think the shooting yesterday was committed by three Ballou students, who ran from the building. One of the students was armed with a silver handgun.

Relatives were let into the school to be reunited with children at about noon. They were briefed by school officials and then allowed to take their children home.

William Paterson, the victim’s father, faulted school and police officials for not giving himprompt information about his son’s condition after the shooting.

He said that after he heard about the incident, he drove to the school where school and police officials demanded that he stay on the sidewalk as his son’s body was carried out to the ambulance.

“They kept saying, ‘Stay on the … sidewalk’,” Mr. Paterson recalled at his family’s apartment in Southeast last night.

Mr. Paterson said he thought his son was shot as the result of an October dispute, possibly with another student, and his son suspected his life was in danger. He said he spoke with Ballou officials in hopes of having his son transferred from the school.

“He thought somebody was going to kill him,” Mr. Paterson said. “I told him he didn’t have to go school if he was that scared. But he wanted to go.”

James, or “J-Rock” as students called him, was a running back for the school’s football team who scored 14 touchdowns and rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the Knights last year and was named to the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association East all-league team.

Mr. Paterson said his son had received several recruitment letters from college coaches and dreamed of playing in the National Football League one day.

“He wanted to go pro,” he said. “I know he could have made it.”

During last fall’s annual Turkey Bowl game for the DCIAA championship against Dunbar, James had a standout game in a losing effort, playing running back, defensive back and return specialist. He rushed for 82 yards on 17 carries, caught two passes for 17 yards, returned two punts for 18 yards, two kickoffs for 42 yards and led the team in tackles with six, including two for losses and a sack.

William Lockridge, a member of the D.C. school board, said he knew James “since he was a kid.” Mr. Lockridge’s voice faltered and he paused several times as he described the young man as very athletic and well-respected.

“He was basically a very nice young man,” Mr. Lockridge said.

Last night, dozens of family and friends offering condolences streamed in and out of the family’s home, where they held a private prayer service.

The victim’s mother, Michelle Richardson, said she did not understand how a gun could be brought into the school, which has two metal detectors, 12 security guards and two uniformed D.C. police officers assigned to it.

“All I know is that this is the worst day of my life, and my son is gone,” she said. “How on earth can somebody be allowed to bring a gun into the school?”

Police last night didn’t have an answer.

“We don’t know how the gun got in,” Chief Ramsey said, “but what we suspect is one of the doors other than the one that had the metal detector may have been used.”

Ballou has 120 doors, and yesterday, investigators were looking at the possibility that unused exit doors at the school’s back end were propped open, allowing other students to enter.

Chief Ramsey said an ongoing dispute between groups of students from the Condon Terrace and Berry Farms neighborhoods of Southeast was a likely cause of the shooting. He stopped short of characterizing the groups as gangs. Some students said James had been involved in a fight on Friday and that the shooting was in retaliation.

Donnee Kearney, 14, a ninth-grader at Ballou who was being picked up by her mother, blamed lax school security for the weapon gaining access into the school. But her mother, Vanetta Kearney, 33, quickly scolded her for placing blame.

“You all know these kids have got guns. You all know these kids have got knives,” Mrs. Kearney told Donnee. “You’ve got to voice your opinion before the tragedy.”

D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, called for immediate measures to improve security, including security guards and metal detectors at every exit.

“We are going to have to put some extreme resources in here to do whatever is necessary to protect our kids,” he said.

The school of 1,300 students will be open today. School officials will hold a community meeting there at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the violence.

Mr. Paterson said he hoped his son’s death would lead to better security and screening at Ballou and other schools throughout the District.

“If they can stop violence in these schools, that would make me feel a whole lot better,” Mr. Paterson said. “I have seven other children. Are they safe? I don’t think that they are.”

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