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Administrator warned about student’s weapon ahead of Newport News school shooting

Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew, schools Superintendent George Parker and Mayor Phil Jones
Ryan Murphy
From left: Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew, schools Superintendent George Parker and Mayor Phil Jones addressed press the Monday after a 6-year-old shot teacher Abby Zwerner.

An administrator at Richneck Elementary School was notified that a student may have a gun hours before a 6-year-old boy shot his teacher, according to the district's superintendent.

A spokeswoman for Newport News Public Schools confirmed that Superintendent George Parker told parents the new details during a closed-door meeting on Thursday.

Someone reported to a school administrator that the student had a weapon after the student arrived at school late. Parker said staff searched the boy's backpack and didn't find anything.

But police say the student later produced a 9-millimeter handgun and pointed it at 25-year-old Abby Zwerner while she was teaching her first-grade class that afternoon.

He fired once, wounding Zwerner's hand and chest. She was able to usher herself and other students out of the classroom to safety before walking to the central office for first aid.

Zwerner is recovering from her injuries.

School Board Chairwoman Lisa Surles-Law referred to a proposed administrative change at Richneck during a statement to the media on Thursday.

The school district did not confirm if anyone at Richneck Elementary has been fired as a result of the shooting.

Surles-Law did say the district allocated funding to put up metal detectors in all of its elementary schools, starting with Richneck. The district already has metal detectors at middle and high schools.

Legal process remains in question

The 6-year-old was taken into police custody at the time of the event and police sought a temporary detention order for him.

Those orders allow a state entity to involuntarily hold people for emergency mental health treatment and evaluation.

Newport News police declined to say when the temporary detention order for the child was issued but said it lasts for up to 96 hours.

That means if the order was issued the Monday following the shooting, the order expired Thursday. If it was issued before then, the order expired earlier in the week.

"The TDO is a legal medical document, therefore we cannot release information regarding the status," Newport News police spokesperson Kelly King told WHRO in an email.

Subjects of such orders get a court hearing when the order expires. Because of his age, the child's hearing would be closed to the public.

That's when it's decided how to best serve the person under the order.

“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," said Julie McConnell, director at the University of Richmond’s Child Defense Center.

“The answer needs to be much more complex and nuanced than that.”

Children younger than 14 rarely go through the regular criminal justice system, lawyers told WHRO.

"In the adult legal system, we're very focused on retribution, deterrence, accountability, punishment," McConnell said. "Those same principles don't apply as well in the context of children. ... Particularly with a 6-year-old, he doesn't even understand what he did or why he did it. So, just punishing him will never address the root causes."

Newport News police said the child got the gun from his home and brought it to school to commit the "intentional" shooting. The gun was legally purchased by the child's mother in York County.

Under Virginia law, adults can be held responsible when young children get a hold of a gun and commit a criminal act.

Officials haven't announced any charges against the boy's mother or any other adult.

Newport News Commonwealth's Attorney Howard Gwynn said in a voicemail late Thursday his office hasn't received a briefing on the facts of the case. He couldn't say how the case would proceed.

Read the original story on WHRO’s website.