Anger grows in Virginia city where first-grader shot teacher

Newport News teachers said the shooting of Abigail Zwerner could have been prevented if not for a toxic environment in which their concerns are systemically ignored

Djifa lee, a second-grade teacher at Saunders Elementary, center, stands with her daughter as she speaks in front of the Newport News School Board at the Newport News Public Schools Administration building on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Newport News, Va.Billy Schuerman (AP)

When a six-year-old shot and wounded his first-grade teacher in this shipbuilding city near Virginia’s coast, the community reacted with collective shock. But the sentiment percolated over 12 days into rage from parents and particularly from teachers, with many lambasting school administrators Tuesday night for what they called a misguided emphasis on attendance and other education statistics over the safety of children and staff.

During a three-hour school board meeting dedicated solely to public comment, Newport News teachers and parents said students who assaulted classmates and staff were routinely allowed to stay in the classroom with few consequences. They said the shooting of Abigail Zwerner could have been prevented if not for a toxic environment in which teachers’ concerns are systemically ignored.

“Every day in every one of our schools, teachers, students and other staff members are being hurt,” high school librarian Nicole Cooke told the board. “Every day, they’re hit. They’re bitten. They’re beaten. And they’re allowed to stay so that our numbers look good.”

Addressing superintendent George Parker, Cooke said: “If Abigail had been respected, she wouldn’t be in the hospital right now.”

The shooting occurred on Jan. 6 as Zwerner taught her first-grade class at Richneck Elementary. There was no warning and no struggle before the six-year-old pointed the gun at his teacher and fired one round, police said.

The bullet pierced Zwerner’s hand and struck her chest. The 25-year-old hustled her students out of the classroom before being rushed to the hospital.

Newport News police said the six-year-old’s mother legally purchased the gun but that it was unclear how her son gained access to it. A Virginia law prohibits leaving a loaded gun where it is accessible to a child under 14, a misdemeanor crime punishable with a maximum one-year prison sentence and $2,500 fine. No charges have been brought against the mother so far.

Community reaction shifted into anger late last week after the superintendent revealed that Richneck administrators had learned the child may have had a weapon in his possession before the shooting. But a search did not find the 9mm handgun despite staff looking through his bag.

Zwerner’s shooting was “completely preventable – if the red flags had been taken seriously and proper procedures clearly communicated and followed,” Amber Thomas, a former school psychologist in Newport News, told the board.

Thomas left the school system early in 2022 after working there for a decade. In an interview with The Associated Press, she recalled a time when a “teacher was assaulted by a student – and that student faced no disciplinary action at all.”

“There were situations in which the administrators walked away from things that were happening,” said Thomas, who served three elementary schools at a time, although not Richneck. “A school counselor and I were often called to intervene with explosive behaviors. And the administrator would see what was going on and turn around and walk the other way and never assist or do anything to follow up.”

Cindy Connell, a middle school teacher who also addressed the board, told the AP that the school system’s leadership is too afraid of angering parents and too focused on limiting discipline such as suspensions.

“I think that our administrators are under an intense pressure to make everything appear better than it is in reality,” Connell said. “And that approach, over the course of a number of years, has put us where we are today.”

Connell said there’s a general fear over the public’s response to doing something like searching a six-year-old for a weapon – and a weapon not being found. There are also concerns that pulling kids with serious behavioral problems out of the classroom will imperil a school’s accreditation.

The shooting by a first-grader was not a shock to Connell. “I have teacher friends who have been hit by kindergarteners, kicked by kindergarteners, punched by kindergarteners, stabbed with pencils by kindergarteners,” she said. “So the only difference is that this child had access to a weapon at home. So, if you put those two things together, I’m not surprised.”

Michelle Price, a spokeswoman for the school board, did not immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press asking for comment on the various criticisms expressed Tuesday night.

Newport News is a racially diverse city of about 185,000 people – about 45% white and 41% Black – that sits along the James River near the Chesapeake Bay. It’s probably best known for its sprawling shipyard, which builds the nation’s aircraft carriers and other US Navy vessels.

About 15% of the population lives in poverty, according to US Census data. More than 400 of the nearly 1,000 incidents of violent crime in the city in 2021 involved a handgun or firearm, according to FBI statistics.

“Gun violence has become a constant for our students,” William Fenker, an eighth-grade science teacher, told the board. “It has been a salient issue in our community for some time now ... Gun violence has even made its way into our schools.”

Newport News schools endured two other shootings in the 17 months before Zwerner was struck by a bullet at Richneck Elementary.

In September 2021, two 17-year-old students were wounded when a 15-year-old boy fired shots in a crowded high school hallway after he had a fight with one of the students.

Two months after that shooting, an 18-year-old student fatally shot a 17-year-old in the parking lot of a different high school after a football game. Police said the teens exchanged “gestures” in the gym before an altercation broke out.

“Our students do not wonder if there will be another school shooting,” Fenker told the board. “They wonder when and where the next shooting will be.”

Last week, the school board announced that 90 walk-through metal detectors would be placed in schools across Newport News, starting with the elementary school where Zwerner was shot. But that failed to satisfy many parents at Tuesday night’s board meeting.

Doug Marmon, who has two children in school and two others who have graduated, called for the removal of the school system’s executive leadership “for their failure of imagination of what could happen.” Marmon suggested the placement of two security officers at each elementary school. He also wants the school system to change how it addresses student behavior, which he said has “proven ineffective.”

“Students need to held accountable for their actions, regardless of age or circumstances – not transferred to another school or placed in a different classroom,” he said. “Equality in our schools should not include the suffering of the majority for the lack of discipline for the few.”

Another parent, David Wilson, said the problem starts with at home. But he also questioned the impact of removing children who misbehave from the classroom. “We can do what everybody wants to do – we can start suspending more kids, sending them home,” Wilson said.

“So you just prevented a school shooting but you just caused a 7-Eleven shooting,” he said. “You didn’t solve the issue. You shifted the issue from one thing to another.”

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