After 3 Weeks and a Flood of Details, Va. School Shooting Grows More Unthinkable

New revelations keep emerging about the 6-year-old who shot his first-grade teacher. With each one, the incident becomes harder to understand

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It’s a tragedy that many observers have struggled to wrap their minds around: How could a 6-year-old access a loaded gun, bring it to school and fire it as his teacher? And how could school leaders ignore multiple warnings the little boy was armed?

In the weeks since the Jan. 6 shooting in Newport News, Virginia, which police almost immediately deemed intentional, new details continue to emerge, but with each revelation the incident becomes harder to understand.

That was especially true this week when the attorney for injured first-grade teacher ​​Abigail Zwerner alleged the school failed to intervene despite at least three warnings that the student was carrying a gun. The school board on Wednesday night terminated the district’s contract with its superintendent and the 6-year-old’s mother, who legally purchased the weapon, still faces the possibility of criminal charges.

Zwerner, 25, suffered a gunshot wound as a bullet passed through her hand and into her chest, police say. Law enforcement officials have said there was an altercation between the boy and his teacher but gave no details; another boy in the class told The Washington Post that Zwerner was shot after she tried to confiscate the gun. While injured, she ushered more than 15 other children out of the room to safety, according to police. The wound initially left Zwerner critically injured, but she was released from the hospital Jan. 20. A bullet remains lodged in her body, her lawyer said.

With national attention trained on the shooting and its aftermath, we recap the twists and turns of the disturbing event that encompasses ongoing debates over guns, student mental health, teacher support and school safety.

New details, timeline of events

In the hours before the first-grader shot his teacher, school employees warned leaders at least three times that the student might be armed, including a shrugged-off request to search his pockets and a teary report from another child that the boy had shown him the gun at recess, Zwerner’s lawyer said in a Wednesday news conference. 

The timeline attorney Diane Toscano laid out goes as follows:

Sometime between 11:15 and 11:30 a.m., Zwerner reported to a school administrator that the 6-year-old child had threatened to beat up a classmate. The administrator took no action to check in with or remove the child, Toscano said.

An hour later at 12:30 p.m., another teacher told an administrator she had searched the child’s backpack for a weapon and found nothing, but believed the 6-year-old had put the gun in his pocket before heading outside for recess. The administrator allegedly dismissed the threat, saying the boy “has little pockets.”

Soon after 1 p.m., a third teacher told the administration that a child had tearfully confessed that his classmate showed him the gun at recess and threatened to shoot him if he told anyone, Toscano said.

A fourth employee then asked school leaders for permission to search the boy, but was denied and received instructions to wait because the school day was almost over, according to Toscano. 

The child shot Zwerner roughly an hour later, said Toscano.

Walkie talkies seen through a side door at Richneck Elementary School the day after the shooting. (Jay Paul/Getty Images)

Under federal law, school staff can search a student if they have “reasonable suspicion,” a lower bar than the probable cause required of police when searching civilians. Reports by two students to officials that a student possesses a gun at school can represent reasonable suspicion for a search, according to a 1990 court ruling.

Shortly before the Virginia teacher was shot, she sent a frustrated text message to a loved one saying one of her students was armed and her school administration was failing to act, NBC reported on Wednesday. The outlet did not reveal the identity of the person who received the text or its exact wording.

A spokesperson for Newport News Public Schools declined to comment and noted that the district’s investigation into the incident is still ongoing.

The shooter’s family, however, called the shooting “horrific” and on Wednesday released a statement through their lawyer, James Ellenson.

“On behalf of the family of the child, we continue to pray for Ms. Zwerner and wish her a complete and full recovery,” Ellenson said. “Our hearts go out to all involved.”

Legal ramifications

Zwerner plans to sue the school district, Toscano said on Wednesday, alleging that officials could have prevented the shooting but failed to act.

The events on Jan. 6 came after weeks or more of disturbing behavior from the student that school officials appear to have downplayed. A Richneck educator spoke anonymously with The Washington Post and said, on one occasion, the boy had written a note to a teacher saying he hated her and wanted to light her on fire and watch her burn to death, but the school administration told the alarmed teacher to drop the matter. The teacher did not specify the date of the incident.

On another occasion, according to the teacher, the boy threw furniture and other classroom items, forcing classmates to hide under their desks. He also, on a separate occasion, barricaded the doors to a classroom, trapping students and an educator inside until a teacher from across the hall forced the doors open from the outside. The boy’s identity appears to be known by several reporters who have interviewed educators and others who know him, but neither he nor his parents have been identified. 

The 6-year-old has an “acute disability” and has been under an intensive care plan at his school, his family said in a Jan. 19 statement through their lawyer.

The family described an unusual arrangement with the school, saying his mother or father had been accompanying the boy in class each day to help manage his disability, and that the week of the shooting was the first time their son had been in school without a parent.

“We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives,” the family said.

The child is currently receiving treatment at a medical facility after police took him into custody and obtained a temporary detention order.

Virginia is one of 24 states in the U.S. with no minimum age for prosecution. Still, it is “incredibly unlikely” the 6-year-old would be charged with or convicted of a crime because children that young are considered incapable of forming criminal intent or being able to understand trial proceedings, University of Virginia legal professor Andrew Block told CNN.

The child’s parents, however, may be in legal jeopardy, juvenile justice experts in Virginia say, even though no one has so far been charged in the shooting.

The mother’s 9-mm. Taurus pistol used in the shooting was stored on the top shelf of her bedroom closet and the weapon had a trigger lock, Ellenson, the family’s lawyer, said. Virginia law prohibits leaving a loaded firearm anywhere it is accessible to children under 14, a crime punishable by misdemeanor.

“A 6-year-old cannot go to the store and buy a gun,” David Riedman, founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database, told The 74. “So if a 6-year-old shoots somebody at a school, it’s because whoever owned the gun failed to be a responsible gun owner.”

School policy changes

Facing mounting pressure from community members, the Newport News school board Wednesday night voted 5-1 in favor of terminating the contract with its superintendent, George Parker III, effective Feb. 1.

“We’re going to have to become a much more student-disciplined and safety-oriented board and division, and that is potentially going to require a lot of new direction,” board member Douglas Brown said.

At Richneck Elementary, the principal has left and the assistant principal resigned, according to local reports. Karen Lynch, a principal in the district for 17 years, is leading the school’s reopening, according to a message sent to community members.

Students will return to campus on Monday, Jan. 30. On Wednesday, the school invited students and families back for a non-instructional, two-hour transition period to get re-accustomed to the building.

The school’s website says it is providing sessions with school social workers or licensed therapists to affected students or families seeking emotional support. However, the listed number went to voicemail when called by The 74 Thursday, and staff offered no comment on when the soonest available appointments for families seeking the services would be.

Earlier in January, school board Chairman Lisa Surles-Law said the district would purchase 90 walk-through metal detectors, to go in all 45 schools within the roughly 26,600-student district. Richneck Elementary would be the first school in which the detectors would be installed.

The district did not respond to questions from The 74 asking whether the metal detectors would be in place for Monday’s reopening. The most recent shooting was the third instance of gun violence on Newport News Public Schools grounds in 17 months.

Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones, who took office Jan. 1, met with President Joe Biden in the days after the shooting at Richneck Elementary School. (Mayor Phillip Jones/Twitter)

What’s next

Newport News is a medium-sized oceanside city on the Chesapeake Bay home to the nation’s largest military shipbuilding company and several military bases. Roughly half of students who attend the school district are Black, about a quarter are white and the remaining share are Latino, Asian or mixed race. About half of all students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.

In the city that, until weeks ago, was best known for building submarines and supercarriers, many questions remain unanswered.

Steve Drew, the city’s police chief, said his team by Friday expects to finish their interviews of children who were in the classroom when the shooting happened, but did not specify when the investigation would be complete.

Reporter Mark Keierleber contributed to this report.

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