The shooting of a first-grade teacher by a six-year-old student in Virginia has caused shock and anger at how such a small child could be involved in a school shooting.
City officials, teachers and parents are calling for something – anything – to be done about the shockingly high rate of gun violence in the United States, which claimed the lives of nearly 45,000 Americans in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Abby Zwerner, 25, was critically injured after being intentionally shot at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia on Friday, police said.
Ms Zwerner was praised for urging her students to flee as she lay bleeding on the classroom floor, and her condition is now said to be stable in hospital, a police spokesperson said in a statement to Independent.
There are still many unknowns about the shooting. Police understandably stayed away from the investigation, given the young age of the suspect.
The key unanswered question was how a six-year-old child was able to obtain a loaded gun, bring it to school and intentionally shoot a teacher.
Police were called to Richneck Elementary School at 2:00 p.m. on Friday, January 6, following reports of a shooting.
It was later revealed that the six-year-old shot the teacher with a pistol after “arguing” in class.
“It was in a classroom and there was a fight,” Newport News police chief Steve Drew told reporters at a press conference on Friday night.
Ms. Zwerner, a first-grade teacher, was rushed to Riverside Regional Medical Center with “life-threatening injuries,” Drew said. No one else was injured.
Brittaney Gregory’s parent, whose son was in the class, said Ms Zwerner tried to take the gun from the student.
“She wanted to confiscate it and then he fired,” Mrs. Gregory said Washington Post.
Other parents who showed up at Richneck Elementary to pick up their children expressed horror at the shooting.
“Why does a seven-year-old have a bloody gun?” said the British mother WTKR outside the school gate before authorities confirmed the suspect’s age.
“You have a beautiful country, you have beautiful people. But what’s the problem? Guns… That’s what I’m pissed about.”
Richneck Elementary principal Briana Foster Newton said in a statement that the school would be closed on Monday and Tuesday “to give us time to heal.”
A 24-hour hotline was set up to advise parents and staff on how to talk to children about the shooting.
“The tragic event that happened on Friday has a profound effect on all of us,” she said.
Third school shooting in the county in 18 months
The Richneck Elementary School shooting was the third shooting in the Newport News Public Schools District in the past 18 months.
In September 2021, 16-year-old Jacari Taylor opened fire in a crowded hallway of Heritage High School, injuring two 17-year-old students, WAVY reported. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for numerous offences.
Then in December 2021, 18-year-old Warwick High School student Demari Batten was charged with murder after fatally shooting a 17-year-old during a basketball game at another high school.
Molly Hunter, who has three children in Newport News elementary schools, told NBC News that the response to previous shootings in the district has been inadequate.
She said the district was stretched as it struggled to fill teacher vacancies, and “violence issues have spiraled out of control.”
Ms. Hunter told NBC News that tackling gun violence in the district was a huge task, but it would help to introduce sensible gun laws, install metal detectors in schools, hire more teachers and mental health counselors.
George Parker, principal of Newport News Public Schools, told a news conference on Friday that every school in the district has metal detection capabilities, but they are usually only used when there is a specific threat.
He said access to metal detectors could be increased after the latest shooting, adding that “there are a lot of concerns we’ll need to unpack.”
“I can’t control access to guns. My teachers cannot control access to guns,” Parker added.
“Our students have been taught a lesson about gun violence and what guns can do to disrupt not only the educational environment but also the family and community.”
Newport News is a city of approximately 185,000 in southeastern Virginia with 26,500 students in the public school system.
“Red Flag for the Country”
Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones he said in a statement on Saturday that the shooting was a “red flag for the country”.
“I think after this event there will be a national discussion about how this sort of thing can be prevented,” Jones said.
Under Virginia law, six-year-olds cannot be prosecuted as adults.
A child so young cannot be imprisoned by the Department of Juvenile Justice if found guilty.
However, a juvenile judge can revoke parental custody and place the child under the supervision of the Department of Social Services.
Mr Jones said the child was receiving “all the services he currently needs”, but did not say where the child was being held.
A researcher who tracks gun violence told the Associated Press that it was “very rare” but not unusual for a child this young to shoot a teacher in class.
David Riedman maintains a database that has been tracking school shootings since the 1970s and said he is only aware of two prior cases where a child his age or younger fired a gun in class.
In 2000, six-year-old Kayla Rolland was shot and killed by a six-year-old classmate at Buell Elementary School in Mount Morris Township, Michigan in an incident that garnered worldwide attention.
Who is Abby Zwerner?
Ms. Zwerner is one of four first-grade teachers at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia.
According to the online profile, he is from Ruckersville, Virginia and lives in Williamsburg.
A former member of the Newport News School Board told the Associated Press that he met with members of Ms Zwerner’s family at the hospital on Friday.
“Guardians and other teachers have talked about her being a good teammate, being a team player, loving her children, just being an all round good teacher,” said John Eley.
Eley said many of her family members, including several aunts, were teachers.
Ms. Zwerner graduated from James Maddison University in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary liberal studies and minors in elementary education and music.
In 2020, she earned a Master’s degree in Education from UJMU’s College of Education.
In a statement, university president Jonathan R Alger said: “All of us at James Madison University are deeply saddened by reports of the tragic shooting of JMU graduate Abby Zwerner.
“We offer prayers and best wishes for Abby’s health and recovery and want to do everything we can to support Abby, her family and friends, fellow teachers and current students and their families during this extremely difficult time.”
According to an obituary published on Williamsburg Yorktown DailyMrs. Zwerner’s father, John Zwerner, was a firefighter and paramedic who died unexpectedly at the family home in 2020 at the age of 56.
He is survived by his wife Julie, Mrs. Zwerner, and her two siblings, Daniel and Hannah.