Virginia school district where 6-year-old allegedly shot teacher has had 3 school-related shootings in 17 months

Jay Paul

The Virginia school district where a 6-year-old is alleged to have intentionally shot a teacher Friday has had three instances of gun violence on district property in the past 17 months.

Police say a 6-year-old boy seriously injured a teacher at Richneck Elementary School when he opened fire in a classroom.

James Madison University identified the wounded teacher as Abby Zwerner, a graduate of the university. A person by the name Abigail Zwerner is listed on Richneck's website as a first-grade teacher.

University President Jonathan R. Alger said in a statement that the campus, nearly 200 miles northwest of Newport News, was “deeply saddened by the reported tragic shooting of JMU alumna Abby Zwerner.”

Newport News Public Schools and the city’s police department have declined to identify the teacher, based on privacy concerns.

Before Friday's incident, shootings at two other schools within the Newport News Public Schools system had shaken the community.

In September 2021, a 16-year-old fired several shots in a busy hallway in Heritage High School during lunchtime, injuring two 17-year-olds, NBC affiliate WAVY of Portsmouth, Virginia, reported.

The shooter was sentenced to 10 years in prison, according to the station.

Less than two months later, in December, Demari Batten, 18, fatally shot Justice Dunham, 17, in the parking lot of Menchville High School after a football game against Woodside High School, also in the Newport News Public Schools system, according to WAVY.

Newport News Public Schools, which has 26,500 students, is made up of three early childhood centers, 24 elementary schools, seven middle schools and five high schools, according to the district’s website.

Parents call for action

Molly Hunter, whose three children attend an elementary school in the district, says the response from Newport News Public Schools has been insufficient.

"The response from the District has made parents like myself feel like the violence that is happening within the schools isn’t being adequately addressed," she said. "I believe that the district is working hard — they have had a difficult time staffing our schools. They seem to be stretched thin, and the violence problems are out of control."

Hunter said that she knows fixing the district's gun violence problem is easier said than done but that actions such as installing metal detectors, having adequate staffing and mental health counselors and stricter visitor policies in schools could all help.

"Also, sensible gun laws! We just need an overhaul of so many things," Hunter said. "Parents like myself are tired and scared but also ready to fight for safety for all of our students."

District Superintendent George Parker III didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. He asked for community support to reduce the chance a child could gain access to a gun in a message late Saturday to district families and staff members.

“A six-year old student with access to a weapon brought that item to his first-grade classroom,” Parker said. “There are many concerns that we will need to unpack before we will be able to determine if any additional preventive measures would have impacted the probability of this incident occurring.”

The Newport News Public Schools community is deeply saddened by the events at Richneck Elementary School. Our hearts are...

Posted by Newport News Public Schools on Saturday, January 7, 2023

Hunter isn't the only Newport News Public Schools parent who thinks metal detectors on campuses could help address its gun violence problem. Hanan Daoud, who also has children in the school district, agrees.

"Being sorry isn’t enough!" Daoud commented on the school district's social media post about Friday's shooting. "What’s your plan to stop this drama? Put Metal Detectors in school!!!!"

Daoud told NBC News she recalled feeling "paralyzed" after she heard that there had been a shooting Friday.

"One of my friends called me to check on my kids. I was shopping," Daoud said. "I was scared to death, got out of the store and called my husband to check where the shooting was."

The shooting didn't happen at the school Daoud's children attend, but it was yet another traumatic incident that scared parents and students alike, she said.

Parker said at a news conference Friday evening, “We do have metal detection capability at all of our schools.”

But he said that the devices aren't used all the time and that they can be activated ahead of a desired date based on a specific threat.

“If we have a perceived threat or an issue, we administer random metal detection on those days,” he said. “We can check individual classrooms, individual students and students.”

Parker said that use of metal detectors could be ramped up and that district leaders will have that discussion.

Richneck Elementary School will be closed Monday and Tuesday in response to the latest shooting.

Richneck Principal Briana Foster Newton shared mental health resources with the school community Saturday evening to help support students.

“The tragic event that occurred on Friday impacts all of us deeply,” she said. “My thoughts and prayers remain with our teacher who was seriously injured, and our students and our staff, who are dealing with the aftereffects of this tragedy.”

Without naming the victim, Newport News police said in a statement that Chief Steve Drew met with her and her family Saturday morning.

Both the police department and Riverside Regional Medical Center, where the woman was recovering, said Saturday that she had been stabilized.

“She has improved,” police said in the statement. “Because of the ongoing nature of the investigation, we will not be releasing any further information at this time.”

In his message to families and staff Saturday night, Parker credited the district with having plans and procedures for emergencies, as well as the swift action from police, sheriff’s deputies and fire personnel to quell the situation and treat the victim

“While no amount of planning can guarantee that a tragedy such as this will not occur; please know that our collective efforts and preparation resulted in immediate medical care for our faculty member, no injuries to students, and a safe and efficient reunification process for our families and students,” Parker said.

'A red flag for the country'

Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones called the shooting "a red flag for the country," according to The Associated Press.

"I do think that after this event, there is going to be a nationwide discussion on how these sorts of things can be prevented," he said.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., tweeted that he was "deeply disturbed" by the shooting and "closely monitoring the situation."

"My thoughts go out to all families and first responders," he wrote.

It’s not clear at this time whether the 6-year-old boy is still in custody or whether he has an attorney.

Officials have yet to comment on where he might have obtained the weapon, which police described as a handgun.

The Newport News Commonwealth's Attorney didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

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