School Climate & Safety

A 6-Year-Old Shot His Teacher. Who Should Be Held Responsible?

The horrific incident is likely to further upend contentious school safety debates
By Evie Blad — January 09, 2023 7 min read
Signs that say "get better fast," "you are in our hearts," "we love Richneck," and "we stand by you" are stuck to the hunter green front doors of Richneck Elementary School.
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A six-year-old Virginia boy shot his first-grade teacher in the classroom Friday—a shocking event that raised questions about how to keep schools safe, how such a young child could gain access to a firearm, and who should be held responsible.

The shooting at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., appeared to be deliberate, police said, a contrast to more common occurrences of accidental misfiring when young children gain access to firearms.

School shootings have increased in frequency in recent years, but they remain statistically rare. And elementary-aged shooters are rarer still.

Including Friday’s incident, there have been just 17 school gun incidents in which the shooter was under 10 years old since 1970, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database, a privately maintained tracker.

“It’s important to note that we have very detailed safety procedures in Newport News schools,” Superintendent George Parker, III, said at a news conference Monday afternoon. “But in no way do I believe we were fully prepared for a six-year-old to bring a weapon to school to shoot his teacher.”

A young shooter shocks classmates

Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said 25-year-old teacher Abigail Zwerner was teaching early Friday afternoon when the unnamed student pulled a 9mm gun from his backback. Zwerner held up her arm in a defensive posture and the student fired one round that went through her hand and into her chest, Drew said at the Monday news conference.

The weapon was legally purchased by the child’s mother, he said. The commonwealth’s attorney will not determine if she or any other adults will face charges until investigators speak with more witnesses to learn what led up to the incident, Drew said.

Virginia law makes it a misdemeanor to “recklessly leave a loaded, unsecured firearm in such a manner as to endanger the life or limb of any child under the age of fourteen.”

No students were harmed in the incident, he said. Zwerner,who was listed in stable condition Monday, ushered students into another classroom after she was shot so they could lock down while she walked to the office to seek attention for her wound. Another staff member ran into the classroom and physically restrained the shooter until police arrived.

“She asked me, first question, ‘Are my students safe?’” Drew said, recounting a meeting with Zwerner in the hospital over the weekend.

The child is in the temporary custody of child protective services, police said, and mental health providers evaluated him Monday.

Carlos Glover, age 9, a fourth grader at Richneck Elementary School, is held by his mother Joselin Glover as they leave the school, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023 in Newport News, Va. A shooting at a Virginia elementary school sent a teacher to the hospital and ended with “an individual” in custody Friday, police and school officials in the city of Newport News said.

Richneck Elementary School will remain closed all week, administrators said, and crisis counselors are available to discuss the incident with students, Parker said Monday.

Teachers at the elementary school had a virtual meeting with administrators Monday, and the district will not reopen the school until it can assure adults and children feel safe, Parker said.

The incident is the third shooting in the Newport News district in recent years. In 2021, a 16-year-old high school student shot and injured two classmates following a fight in a hallway. Months later, a 17-year-old student shot and killed an 18-year student in the parking lot after a basketball game.

In response to those incidents, secondary students are randomly checked for firearms, Parker said, but there is no universal requirement to pass through metal detectors on the way into school.

The school board will consider whether to add additional safety measures, including metal detectors, at the elementary level, he said.

Young school shooters are rare

The K-12 School Shooting Database—which tracks incidents in which a gun “is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason” at any time of day—has documented more than 2,000 incidents since 1970. Until July 2022, the database was associated with Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security.

There is no predictive profile of a school shooter, said David Riedman, a criminology researcher who maintains the database, but such a young shooter is especially rare. The average age of shooters or would-be shooters in the database is between 14 and 15 years old, he said.

The youngest shooter in the data is a five-year-old who brought a gun to his Memphis, Tenn., elementary school and accidentally discharged it in his backpack while he was in the school’s cafeteria.

“This [Newport News] situation looks really different from any of the cases involving young children,” Riedman said, noting the police claims that the shooting was intentional.

A similar incident happened in Flint, Mich., in 2000, when a six-year-old boy shot and killed a six-year-old girl as their class lined up to visit the school library. The boy was never charged with a crime, but prosecutors did charge an adult who lived with the boy and stored the weapon in a shoebox.

Scrambled school safety debates

The young age of the Virginia shooter is likely to scramble the familiar safety debates that often follow instances of gun violence in schools.

At the elementary level, policymakers’ school safety proposals often center on the expectation of an outside intruder committing a mass attack, as in the 2022 shooting in Uvalde, Texas, or the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Policies and practices centered on preventing violence committed by students—like threat assessment teams and school police—are more common at the secondary level. For example, 14.8 percent of high schools conducted random metal detector checks on students in 2019-20, according to the most recent federal data. By contrast, 1.8 percent of elementary schools conducted random checks.

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“It’s incredibly difficult to keep firearms out of schools, Riedman said. “Just the amount of time and resources it would take to check every student, every day is really not viable. School security starts with every adult who owns a gun making sure it is locked and accounted for at all times.”

The Newport News incident comes as gun-safety advocates push states to pass and strengthen safe-storage laws, which impose liability on adults who fail to store guns in unlocked places that are accessible to children.

“In addition to assessing our established safety procedures, we will need the support of our community to significantly reduce the likelihood of a child or young adult gaining access to a weapon,” Parker wrote in a note to families Friday.

At least twenty-four states, including Virginia, have some version of a law that requires gun owners to keep weapons away from minors, according to the Giffords Law Center, which advocates for gun-control measures, though some of those laws are far more stringent than others.

Calls for safer gun storage

Teachers’ unions and gun-safety organizations have also encouraged schools and districts to promote messages about safe firearms storage, regardless of their states’ laws. Districts educating about 8.5 million students have pledged to share firearm safety messages this year, said Shannon Watts, the founder of the gun-control advocacy group Moms Demand Action, who spoke to Education Week in December.

She cited a 2019 analysis from the U.S. Secret Service that found the majority of school shooters used firearms from their homes.

James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., said that, in addition to ensuring students feel safe and supported at school, society at large needs to commit to a “public health campaign around the safe storage of firearms.”

Police respond to a shooting at Richneck Elementary School, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023 in Newport News, Va. A shooting at a Virginia elementary school sent a teacher to the hospital and ended with “an individual” in custody Friday, police and school officials in the city of Newport News said.

“In many ways, it’s just a simple mathematical problem that we have,” said Densley, who studies school violence and mass shootings. “The more guns we have, the more likely they are to end up in the hands of someone who shouldn’t have them, and that includes a six-year-old.”

Even if a young child seemed to fire a weapon intentionally, his brain development and ability to understand the repercussions of his actions are limited, leaving adults potentially culpable, Densley said.

Schools should ensure students feel comfortable sharing concerns about their peers who may be struggling with social isolation, mental health concerns, or violent intentions, he said. And they should respond to such concerns in a non-punitive way that effectively addresses students’ need for help.

“In the absence of effective public policy, you are putting this on the backs of the schools, on the backs of the parents, and on the backs of the students themselves to solve this problem,” Densley said.

The Newport News district plans further investigations to determine what led up to the incident as part of its safety review, Parker told reporters. Police plan to interview teachers, review school records and security footage, and work with psychologists who are trained to interview children as they collect additional witness statements, Drew said.

He would not speculate on a motive.

“I don’t know what was going through that child’s mind,” he said. “He’s six years old. I don’t know.”

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