Virginia First Grader Intentionally Shoots Teacher

Richneck Elementary School | Source: Getty Images

On January 6th, a 6-year-old in Newport News, Virginia, shot his first-grade teacher. Local authorities have said the shooting was “intentional.” The boy, who remains unnamed because of his age, shot a single bullet at the teacher, 25-year-old Abigail Zwerner, wounding her in the hand and chest before being restrained by a Richneck Elementary employee. Having been shot, Zwerner helped evacuate her class and was then taken to a local hospital. She has since been discharged.

At a press conference three days after the shooting, Newport News police provided details of the shooting. At 1:59 pm, the police received a call alerting them that a Richneck teacher had been shot. After arriving at the site, they entered Zwerner’s classroom, where the boy was struggling against the employee restraining him. Police took the boy out of the building and put him in a police car, after which point Zwerner was transported to a hospital. Police, faculty, and staff then evacuated the remaining elementary students to the gym, where they remained until parents and guardians could pick them up.

After the children had been brought to the gym, forensics entered Zwerner’s classroom. In the boy’s backpack, they found a spent shell casing, a cell phone, and the nine-millimeter Taurus firearm with which the boy shot Zwerner mid-lesson.

While the forensics were evaluating the scene, the officers in the gym were “trying to make that situation that we’re dealing with the best that we could. They remembered how important those young people are in that time they may never forget.” Newport News police chief recalls that the children and police were teasing each other, doing their best to lighten the mood of the situation.

The boy’s family was contacted and told to come to the police station. They obeyed, and police interviewed the boy and his mother, determining that the boy had obtained the firearm, which his mother had legally purchased, at home.

Police then faced the question of how to deal with the shooter, whose young age is unprecedented. He was eventually evaluated by the CIA and put in temporary detention by the Community Service Board. He has been receiving treatment from a medical facility as well.

In a letter addressing the situation, the boy’s family has said they have “always been committed to responsible gun ownership and keeping firearms out of the reach of children. The firearm our son accessed was secured.” The family’s attorney, James Ellenson, told AP that he understood the gun to have been in the mother’s closet on a shelf more than six feet high. The gun, he said, had a triggered lock that required a key for operation.

The boy’s family has said, “Our son suffers from an acute disability and was under a care plan at the school that included his mother or father attending school with him and accompanying him to class every day… The week of the shooting was the first week when we were not in class with him. We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives.”

As the investigation into the shooting has continued, new details relating to the handling of the situation have come to light. The day Zwerner was shot, Richneck administration was warned three times that the boy had a gun with him. The first was around 11:30, when Zwerner told a school administrator that the boy had threatened to beat up another child. An hour later, another teacher told administration that she had searched the boy’s backpack, as he was rumored to have brought a gun to school. Though she did not find the gun, she said she believed the boy had put it in his pocket. Administration dismissed the report, claiming that “he has little pockets.”

At one, a third teacher reported to administration that another boy was crying. According to the boy, the six-year-old shooter had shown him a gun at recess. The six-year-old had said he would shoot the boy if the boy told anyone about it.

According to Zwerner’s lawyer, Diane Toscano, Newport News administrators did not follow the necessary safety protocols in dealing with these reports. They did not call the police, and when a fourth employee asked to search the six-year-old, he was told he could not. Instead, administration instructed employees to “wait the situation out because the school day was almost over.” Zwerner was shot roughly an hour later.

Toscano has said, “This should never have happened, and it was preventable. Thank God Abby is alive. But had administrators acted, Abby would not have sustained a gunshot wound to her chest.”

Toscano announced on January 24th that she will be filing a lawsuit against Newport News Public Schools on Zwerner’s behalf.

On January 25th, the vice principal of Richneck Elementary School, Dr. Ebony Parker, resigned. This came after the school board’s chairperson, Lisa Surles-Law, stated that administrative changes would be put into effect at Richneck.

The same day, the school board held a special meeting, during which it voted to fire Richneck’s superintendent, Dr. George Parker III. In the same meeting, Dr. Michele Mitchell, previously the executive director of student advancement, was appointed interim superintendent in his place.

Parker currently earns $251,057.57 per year. In accordance with his contract, he will continue to receive this salary as well as benefits until June 30, 2024, as he was terminated without cause.

Briana Foster Newton, the former principal of Richneck Elementary, has been reassigned within Newport News Public Schools, though the spokesperson who shared this information with CNN declined to say where.

Students at Richneck, meanwhile, are set to return to class on Monday, January 30th after a transitional period of on-site, non-instructional activities beginning on January 25th. Karen Lynch, Richneck’s administrator on special assignment, has stated that emotional support services will continue to be offered to students, family, and staff throughout the week.

Zwerner was released from Riverside Regional Medical Center on January 19th. Her spokesperson, Angela Arcieri, told WTKR 3 that Zwerner “continues her recovery as an outpatient with the support of family, friends, and health professionals.” She added that “the Zwerner family respectfully asks for privacy at this time.”

As the investigation into the shooting continues, Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew says how the mother’s gun was secured will be a “key element” in determining what charges are pressed against the boy’s family. What, if any, consequences the boy himself will face is unclear, as a child must be 11 years old to be sentenced to juvenile prison in Virginia.

Though the boy is unlikely to face charges, Virginia has a misdemeanor law intended to prevent children 14 and younger from accessing firearms. The boy’s mother could be indicted for breaking this law.


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