A gravely-injured teacher and 6-year-old suspect: Why the latest school shooting is a ‘red flag for the US’

Abby Zwerner, 25, is in a stable condition in hospital after she was shot by a 6-year-old student (Abby Zwerner / Facebook)
Abby Zwerner, 25, is in a stable condition in hospital after she was shot by a 6-year-old student (Abby Zwerner / Facebook)

The shooting of a first-grade teacher by a six-year-old student in Virginia has prompted an outpouring of shock and anger at how such a young child could be involved in a school shooting.

City officials, teachers and parents are calling for something — anything — to be done about about the shockingly high rate of gun violence in the United States, which claimed the lives of nearly 45,000 Americans in 2022, according to Gun Violence Archive.

Abby Zwerner, 25, was critically injured after being intentionally shot at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, on Friday, police said.

Ms Zwerner was lauded for urging her students to run for their lives as she lay bleeding on the classroom floor, and her condition is now listed as stable in hospital, a police spokesperson said in a statement to The Independent.

There is still much that is unknown about the shooting. Police have understandably been tightlipped about their investigation, given the tender age of the suspect.

The crucial unanswered question was how a six-year-old child was able to obtain a loaded gun, bring it to school, and deliberately shoot a teacher.

The shooting

Police were called to Richneck Elementary School at 2pm on Friday 6 January to reports of a shooting.

It later emerged that a six-year-old had fired a handgun at the teacher after an “altercation” in class.

“It was in a classroom, and there was a fight,” Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew told reporters at a media briefing on Friday night.

Ms Zwerner, a first-grade teacher, was rushed to Riverside Regional Medical Center with “life-threatening injuries”, Mr Drew said. No one else was injured.

Parent Brittaney Gregory, whose son was in the class, said Ms Zwerner was trying to remove the gun from the student.

“She was going to confiscate it, and that’s when he shot,” Ms Gregory told the Washington Post.

Other parents turning up at Richneck Elementary to collect their children expressed their horror at the shooting.

“Why is there a seven-year-old with a bloody gun?” a British mother said to WTKR outside the school gate, before authorities had confirmed the age of the suspect.

“You’ve got a beautiful country, you’ve got beautiful people. But what’s the problem? Guns ... That’s what I’m pissed off with.”

Richneck Elementary principal Briana Foster Newton said in a statement the school would be closed on Monday and Tuesday “to give us time to heal”.

A 24-hour helpline had been set up to provide counselling to parents and staff on how to speak to their children about the shooting.

“The tragic event that occurred on Friday impacts all of us deeply,” she said.

A third school shooting in the district in 18 months

The Richneck Elementary School shooting was the third to occur in the Newport News Public Schools District in the past 18 months.

In September 2021, 16-year-old Jacari Taylor opened fire in a crowded hallway at Heritage High School, wounding two 17-year-old students, WAVY reported. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on multiple felony charges.

Then in December 2021, 18-year-old  Warwick High School student Demari Batten was charged with murder after the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old at a basketball game at another high school.

Molly Hunter, who has three children at Newport News elementary schools, told NBC News the response after previous shootings in the district had been inadequate.

She said the district had been stretched thin as it struggled to fill teacher vacancies, and “the violence problems are out of control”.

Ms Hunter told NBC News that solving gun violence in the district was a huge task, but that having sensible gun laws, installing metal detectors in schools, hiring more teachers and mental health counsellors would help.

Police respond to a shooting at Richneck Elementary School, on 6 January, in Newport News (The Virginian-Pilot)
Police respond to a shooting at Richneck Elementary School, on 6 January, in Newport News (The Virginian-Pilot)

George Parker, the superintendent of Newport News Public Schools, told a press conference on Friday that every school in the district had metal detection capabilities, but they are typically only used if there is a specific threat.

He said access to metal detectors could be increased after the latest shooting, adding there were “many concerns that we will need to unpack”.

“I cannot control access to weapons. My teachers cannot control access to weapons,” Mr Parker added.

“Our students got a lesson in gun violence and what guns can do to disrupt not only an educational environment but also a family, a community.”

Newport News is a city of about 185,000 people in southeastern Virginia, and has 26,500 students in its public schools system.

‘A red flag for the country’

Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones said in a statement on Saturday that the shooting was a “red flag for the country”.

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

Under Virginia law, six-year-olds cannot be charged as an adult.

A child that young cannot be imprisoned by the Department of Juvenile Justice if found guilty.

However, a juvenile judge could revoke a parent’s custody and place a child under the purview of the Department of Social Services.

Mr Jones said the child was receiving “all the services that he currently needs right now,” but would not say where the child was being held.

A researcher who tracks gun violence told the Associated Press it was “very rare” but not unheard of for a child that young to shoot a teacher in class.

David Riedman runs a database that tracks school shootings since 1970, and said he was only aware of two previous instances where a child of that age or younger has fired a weapon in class.

In 2000, six-year-old Kayla Rolland was shot and killed by a six-year-old classmate at Buell Elementary School in Mount Morris Township, Michigan, in a case that attracted worldwide attention.

Who is Abby Zwerner?

Ms Zwerner is one of four first-grade teachers at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia.

According to an online profile, she hails from Ruckersville, Virginia, and lives in Williamsburg.

A former member of the Newport News School Board told the Associated Press that he had met with members of Ms Zwerner’s family at the hospital on Friday.

“The custodians and other teachers spoke about how she’s a good teammate, she’s a team player, she loves her children, she’s just an all-around good teacher,” John Eley said.

Many of her family members, including several aunts, were educators, Mr Eley said.

Ms Zwerner graduated from James Maddison University in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies and minors in Elementary Education and Music.

Abby Zwerner is said to be beloved by her first-grade students (Abby Zwerner/Facebook)
Abby Zwerner is said to be beloved by her first-grade students (Abby Zwerner/Facebook)

She received a master’s degree in Education from JMU’s College of Education in 2020.

In a statement, university president Jonathan R Alger said: “All of us at James Madison University are deeply saddened by the reported tragic shooting of JMU alumna Abby Zwerner.

“We offer prayers and best wishes for Abby's health and recovery and want to do all we can to support Abby, her family and friends, fellow teachers and current students and their families at this incredibly difficult time.”

According to an obituary published on the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily, Ms Zwerner’s father John Zwerner was a firefighter and paramedic who died unexpectedly at the family home in 2020 at the age of 56.

He was survived by his wife Julie, Ms Zwerner and her two siblings Daniel and Hannah.