Virginia Teacher Shot By 6-Year-Old

By Julia Ordaz

On January 6, 2023 a first grade student shot his teacher inside a classroom at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia. The six-year-old intentionally shot Abigail Zwerner, firing one round that struck Zwerner through her hand and into her upper chest. Zwerner was in critical condition for the remainder of the day, but became stable the next day on January 7th. 

Newport News police chief Steve Drew said the shooting happened unprompted, with no fight or physical struggle. Brittaney Gregory’s son was in the class during the shooting. She says that the class was reading when the boy pulled out the firearm from his backpack and pointed it at his teacher, and that Zwerner was shot when she attempted to confiscate the weapon. 

Police determined that the intention was for a single target, so no possibility of a larger number of casualties could have occurred. The boy, who wasn’t identified due to his age, was placed under court-ordered temporary detention and is undergoing medical treatment and evaluation. It is unlikely that the boy will be charged. David Riedman, founder of a K-12 School Shooting Database says, “It’s very rare and it’s not something the legal system is really designed or positioned to deal with.” Riedman claims to be aware of only three other shootings by six-year-olds in the time period lasting from the 1970s to the current day. NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos details the difficulties in attempting to charge such a young minor: “While theoretically, they could charge him with a crime, they’d have to prove that a six-year-old was capable of forming the intent for attempted murder.” The Department of Juvenile Justice does not commit children aged six to their custody. 

According to a Newport News Police report, the 9mm Taurus pistol was legally purchased by the boy’s mom. The investigation into whether or not the gun was secured at the home continues. Virginia does not have a law that regulates gun securement at home, but it does have a misdemeanor intended to protect children: “It shall be unlawful for any person 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. Any person violating the provisions of this subsection shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.” The parents could be charged with reckless endangerment or child neglect, additionally a juvenile judge would have the authority to place the boy under the responsibility of the Department of Social Services. 

Zwerner, 25, prioritized the safety of her students before her own. After being shot, Zwerner escorted the children out of the classroom while another employee restrained the boy. The last one to leave the room, she made her way down to the school’s front office where she collapsed. The parent of one of the students in the classroom, Steve Gonzalez, said that Zwerner “screamed at her kids to run away.” Police received the call around 2PM local time. 

The first question she asked upon arrival at the local hospital was, “Do you know how my students are?”

The other children in the school, usually too young to have knowledge on the topic, recount their experiences. Fourth grader Carlos Glover was at recess but he and his other classmates quickly rushed into their classroom where, “Most of the class was crying.” Fifth grader Novah Jones who was already in her classroom at the time of the lockdown says, “I was scared. It was like my first lockdown and I didn’t know what to do, so I just hid under my desk like everybody else was.” 

In a statement that reflects what much of the country is thinking, Newport News mayor Phillip Jones posted on Twitter, “It is almost impossible to wrap our minds around the fact that a 6 year old 1st grader brought a loaded handgun to school and shot a teacher; however, this is exactly what our community is grappling with today.” Zwerner is being hailed a hero for her quick response that led her students to safety. 

Update: The Warnings That Could Have Prevented the Tragedy

Abigail Zwerner was shot through the hand and chest by her six year old student at Richneck Elementary School. Now, Zwerner’s lawyer Diane Toscano has said that the shooting was entirely preventable, had officials listened to the warnings.

Toscano said, “On that day, over the course of a few hours, three different times – three times – school administration was warned by concerned teachers and employees that the boy had a gun on him at school and was threatening people.”

One and a half hours before the shot was fired, at around 12:30 pm, a teacher searched the boy’s backpack but found nothing. She told an official that he might have hidden the gun somewhere else like in his pockets, and allegedly the officer responded, “Well, he has little pockets.” An hour before, at around 1:00 pm, another teacher reported that the boy had shown and threatened another student with the gun. During the same day another staff member attempted to search the boy but was given orders to wait because the day was almost over. Despite the warnings, administrators took no precautions and did not notify the police. 

The boy’s family mentioned that he has an “acute disability” that usually prevented him from attending school alone. On the day of the shooting the boy attended by himself, just returning from a one-day suspension. He was suspended for slamming and breaking Zwerner’s phone. 

A legal notice filed by an attorney for Zwerner reports that the boy had a history of violence at the school, cursing and yelling at teachers and staff, chasing and trying to whip students with a belt, and even choking a teacher “until she couldn’t breathe.” 

Several school officials have stepped down in light of these negligence allegations.

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