The shooting of a first-grade teacher by a six-year-old student in Virginia has sparked an outburst of shock and anger at how such a young child could have been involved in a school shooting.
City officials, teachers and parents are demanding that something – anything – be done about the staggeringly high rate of gun violence in the United States, which claimed nearly 45,000 American lives in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Abby Zwerner, 25, was seriously injured after being deliberately shot Friday at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, police said.
Ms Zwerner was praised for urging her students to run for their lives as she lay bleeding on the classroom floor, and her condition is now considered stable at the hospital, a police spokesman said in a statement The Independent.
Much is still unknown about the shooting. Given the suspect’s young age, the police were understandably reluctant to investigate.
The key unanswered question was how a six-year-old child could obtain a loaded gun, take it to school, and deliberately shoot a teacher dead.
Police were called to Richneck Elementary School at 2 p.m. on Friday, January 6 to receive reports of a shooting.
It later emerged that a six-year-old had shot the teacher with a pistol after an “argument” in class.
“It was in a classroom, and there was a fight,” Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew told reporters at a media briefing Friday night.
Ms. Zwerner, a first-grade teacher, was taken to Riverside Regional Medical Center with “life-threatening injuries,” Mr. Drew said. Nobody else was hurt.
Parents who showed up at Richneck Elementary School to pick up their children expressed their horror at the shooting.
“Why is there a seven year old with a bloody gun?” said a British mother WTKR outside the school gate before authorities had confirmed the suspect’s age.
British mom blasts US gun laws after shooting 6-year-old teacher
“You have a beautiful country, you have beautiful people. But what’s the problem? Guns… That’s what pisses me off.”
Richneck Elementary School principal Briana Foster Newton said in a statement the school will be closed on Monday and Tuesday “to give us time to heal.”
A 24-hour hotline has been set up to advise parents and staff on how to speak to their children about the shooting.
“Friday’s tragic event hits us all deeply,” she said.
A third school shooting in the district in 18 months
The Richneck Elementary School shooting was the third in the past 18 months in the Newport News Public School District.
In September 2021, 16-year-old Jacari Taylor opened fire in a crowded hallway at Heritage High School, injuring two 17-year-old students. WAVY reported. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for multiple offenses.
Then, in December 2021, 18-year-old Warwick High School student Demari Batten was charged with murder after a 17-year-old was fatally shot during a basketball game at another high school.
Molly Hunter, who has three children at Newport News elementary schools, told NBC News the response was inadequate after previous shootings in the district were inadequate.
She said the district has been thin on the ground as it struggles to fill vacant teaching positions and “the violence issues are out of control.”
Ms Hunter told NBC News that solving gun violence in the district is a tall order, but that sensible gun laws, installing metal detectors in schools, hiring more teachers and mental health counselors would help.
George Parker, the superintendent of Newport News Public Schools, told a news conference Friday that every school in the district has metal detection capabilities, but they’re typically only used when there’s a specific threat.
He said access to metal detectors could be improved following the recent shootings, adding there are “many concerns that we need to address”.
“I cannot control access to guns. My teachers cannot control access to guns,” added Mr. Parker.
“Our students received a lesson in gun violence and what guns can do to disrupt not just an educational setting but a family, a community.”
Newport News is a city of about 185,000 in southeastern Virginia and has 26,500 students in its public school system.
“A red flag for the country”
Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones 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 nationwide discussion on how to prevent things like this,” Mr Jones said.
Under Virginia law, six-year-olds cannot be charged as adults.
Such a young child cannot be detained by the Juvenile Justice Department if found guilty.
However, a juvenile court judge could remove a parent’s custody and place a child under the jurisdiction of the Department of Social Services.
Mr Jones said the child was receiving “all the services she needs at this time” but declined to say where the child was being held.
A researcher who tracks gun violence told the Associated Press it’s “very rare” but not uncommon for a child that young to shoot a teacher in class.
David Riedman has maintained a database that has tracked school shootings since the 1970s and said he was only aware of two previous cases in which a child of that age or younger had 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 a case that drew 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 an online profile, she is from Ruckersville, Virginia and lives in Williamsburg.
A former member of the Newport News School Board told the Associated Press he met with members of Ms Zwerner’s family at the hospital on Friday.
“The counselors and other teachers talked about how she’s a good teammate, a team player, she loves her kids, she’s just an all-round good teacher,” John Eley said.
Many of her family members, including several aunts, were educators, Mr Eley said.
Ms. Zwerner graduated from James Maddison University in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies with minors in Elementary Education and Music.
In 2020 she received her Masters in Education from the College of Education at JMU.
In a statement, University President Jonathan R. Alger said, “All of us at James Madison University are deeply saddened by the reported tragic shooting of JMU graduate Abby Zwerner.
“We extend Abby’s prayers and best wishes for 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 at this incredibly difficult time.”
According to an obituary published on the Williamsburg Yorktown DailyMs 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, his wife Zwerner and their two siblings Daniel and Hannah.