Things need to change in Newport News schools. If that wasn’t clear before the Jan. 6 shooting at Richneck Elementary School — and it was to numerous educators and parents — it is abundantly evident now.
Teachers need reliable and effective support. Students need more resources and better care. Parents need to be more involved. And if officials, both elected and appointed, cannot provide the leadership to deliver these essentials, Newport News will have to replace them with people who will.
The investigation into the shooting of 25-year-old Abigail Zwerner by a 6-year-old boy remains under investigation, with local and federal authorities sharing the work of determining what led the child to bring a handgun to school and use it against his first-grade teacher.
According to a statement released last week by the boy’s mother, the firearm was stored out of reach at her home and was engaged with a trigger lock. Her attorney said she had “no idea how the child got the gun” and that she was cooperating fully with the investigation, which included searches of a home and an apartment where the mother was living.
Even as that important work continues, however, the community has moved from shock in the immediate aftermath to outrage, asking pointed — and eminently justified — questions of school officials about behavior policies, safety protocols and a commitment to support those in classrooms.
At a three-hour public forum last week, speakers criticized a lack of support for teachers and poor behavior among students in Newport News schools. They described a lack of respect for educators and minimal punishment for troublemakers, and said that a September 2021 shooting at Heritage High School was also a byproduct of a culture that allows well-known problems to fester.
“[O[ur trust is not a ‘would be nice,’ it is a ‘must have.’ Without our trust and cooperation, this district will fail in its mission and further embarrass itself in the eyes of the community, nation and world,” William Fenker, an eighth grade science teacher at Gildersleeve Middle School, said at the forum.
He was not alone in that opinion. A Jan. 13 Daily Press story describes these issues as years in the making, caused by a lack of attention by school officials and indifference to the pleas of teachers and parents alike.
Complaints raised to administrators are not taken seriously, teachers told reporter Nour Habib, and the process of getting students the care and structure they need is far too slow to be effective.
That all contributes to an erosion of safety. And even when alarm bells are screaming, as they were in this case, officials are incapable of responding.
Superintendent George Parker admitted that an administrator was warned the 6-year-old might bring a weapon to school and even searched his backpack the day of the shooting, an embarrassing and unacceptable failure to protect students, teachers and staff.
This is the reckoning that many involved in Newport News schools expected. A teacher shot, a boy in custody, an investigation ongoing, and the school system’s mistakes all in clear view. Pulling out of this tailspin will be no easy mission.
Trust is easy to break and painfully difficult to build, but the opportunity is now before those charged with leading the city’s school system. They have their charge: to engage with teachers and respond swiftly to their concerns, to work with parents to learn what can be done better and then to follow through, to expand mental health services throughout the system, and to invite the community to be part of a solution — through volunteering, mentoring and other avenues — that can help students succeed.
It is shameful that it took a tragedy for Newport News to listen to these complaints, and if school officials are unable or unwilling to make wholesale changes to operations, city voters should be eager to replace them with people who can and will.