Legal questions surround 6-year-old's shooting of Newport News teacher
Most Richneck Elementary students were home Tuesday, while one of their first-grade classmates remained in state custody.
Charges have not been announced against either the 6-year-old student who shot a teacher Friday or the student's parents. The teacher, 25-year-old Abby Zwerner, remains hospitalized but in stable condition.
Police Chief Steve Drew said during a press conference earlier this week that he'd spoken with Zwerner more than once. He said her first question was about how her students were doing.
The 6-year-old boy allegedly drew a 9-millimeter handgun and pointed it at Zwerner while she was teaching a lesson to the class. Police said the student fired once, hitting her in the hand and upper chest.
After she was shot, Zwerner ushered the other children out of the classroom to safety. She then walked herself to the school's central office, where she received first aid.
Nobody else was hurt.
Drew called Zwerner's actions Friday heroic.
"I believe Ms. Zwerner — Abigail — saved lives on Friday," Drew said.
When police arrived, another school faculty member had restrained the 6-year-old. Officers found the gun on the floor near them.
The student was taken into police custody before a magistrate issued a temporary detention order, an involuntary order often used for people experiencing mental health crises.
Officials said on Monday the boy was being evaluated by child psychologists at a medical facility. Drew said investigators are still gathering information and will discuss possible charges with the Commonwealth’s Attorney.
“Right now, we have some statements, but we want to shore those up,” Drew said. “I'm not going to go … much further than that. What I can tell you is the child did take the firearm from the house. He put it in a backpack and took it to school that day.”
Next steps for the student
In the aftermath of the shooting, questions are still swirling about how the legal system will deal with the child.
Drew cautioned that despite the many concerns and questions from the community, officials would be taking their time to deal with a case this complicated.
"This is an unprecedented situation we're dealing with — a 6-year-old," he said. "So, there are some nuances here."
Children younger than 14 rarely go through the regular criminal justice system, lawyers told WHRO.
Often, a younger child will become the state’s responsibility by way of a Child in Need of Services legal petition. The state can put the child in foster care and coordinate services like mental health care.
Other times, officials and guardians can access those services without court intervention, said Julie McConnell, director at the University of Richmond’s Child Defense Center.
“We can't say that the answer here is ‘We just need to punish him. We need to put him in detention.’ That's not going to solve anything here,” she said. “The answer needs to be much more complex and nuanced than that.”
The first step is figuring out what elicited this behavior in the first place.
"Where did he learn that behavior? Was this in reaction to having experienced some sort of traumatic event where he saw someone else killed by gun violence or shot, wounded in some way?" she said.
McConnell said she’s never seen a child younger than 8 prosecuted in a case like this.
Democratic Del. Mike Mullin represents Newport News. He’s also an attorney who spent much of his career as a prosecutor working in juvenile court.
“If you've ever met and spent some time with a 6-year-old, [they’re] not old enough to be able to make the kinds of decisions that even a 12- or 13- or 14-year-old can,” he said. “We need to recognize the fact that a child of that age might not be making the same sort of complex decisions of understanding what's right and wrong, understanding the finality of their actions in the same way that a preteen or a teenager might.”
Meanwhile, a parent or guardian may end up facing charges. Virginia has laws on the books designed to hold parents responsible when their young children get hold of a gun.
The law for recklessly keeping a firearm where a kid could access it is a class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.
Police didn't provide information about custody arrangements once the detention order expires. The student and his parents have not been identified.
Moving forward at school
Newport News Superintendent George Parker III said the school system is launching its own investigation into policy compliance.
He said it’s for the district to figure out what happened, what it can do better and what staff and students need going forward.
"This incident right here will cause us to rethink how we handle our youngest children coming into our division," he said.
Parker said he hates the idea of hardening schools' security, but that may be the next step.
"I mentioned being angry earlier because I know our board members know how I feel about making our schools look anything like a prison. ... If we can't maintain safety and at least get to the point where we can have a safe and effective school day, kids won't learn anything."
The district installed metal detectors at middle and high schools after a shooting at Heritage High School last year.
For the time being, classes are canceled at Richneck Elementary. There's no date for when they will resume.