The Virginia school district where a 6-year-old boy allegedly intentionally shot a teacher on 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 injured teacher as Abby Zwerner, a graduate of the university. A person by the name of 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 alumnus Abby Zwerner.”
Newport News Public Schools and the city’s police department have declined to identify the teacher, citing privacy concerns.
Prior to Friday’s incident, there were shootings at two other schools within the Newport News Public Schools system that rocked the community.
Newport News Public Schools is made up of 26,500 students and includes three early childhood centers, 24 elementary schools, seven middle schools and five high schools, according to the district’s website.
In September 2021, a 16-year-old fired multiple shots in a crowded hallway inside Heritage High School during lunchtime, wounding two 17-year-olds, according to Portsmouth, Virginia-based NBC affiliate WAVY.
The shooter was sentenced to 10 years in prison, according to the outlet.
Less than two months later, in December, 18-year-old Demari Batten fatally shot 17-year-old Justice Dunham in the parking lot of Menchville High School after a football game against Woodside High School, also within the High School system. Newport News Public Schools. according to WAVY.
Parents call for action
Molly Hunter, whose three children attend an elementary school in the district, says the Newport News Public Schools’ response to the violence has been insufficient.
“The response from the District has made parents like me feel that the violence that is occurring within schools is not being adequately addressed,” he told NBC News. “I think the district is working hard; they’ve been having a hard time staffing our schools. It seems like they’re on edge and the violence issues are out of control.”
The Hunter ward mom says she knows fixing the ward’s gun violence problem is easier said than done, but actions like installing metal detectors, having adequate staffing, mental health counselors and visitor policies more strict rules in schools can help. Police said they are not releasing the identities of the crime victims.
“Also, sensible gun laws! We just need a review of a lot of things,” Hunter said. “Parents like me are tired and scared, but also ready to fight for the safety of all of our students.”
District Superintendent George Parker III did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but issued a message Saturday night to families and district staff asking for community support in reducing the possibility of a child may have access to a weapon.
“A six-year-old student with access to a weapon brought that item into his first grade classroom,” Parker said. “There are many concerns that we will need to unpack before we can determine whether any additional preventative measures would have affected the likelihood of this incident occurring.”
Hunter isn’t the only Newport News Public Schools parent who believes metal detectors on campus can help address the problem of gun violence. Hanan Daoud, who also has children within the school district, agrees.
“Sorry is not enough!” Daoud commented on the school district’s post about Friday’s shooting. “What is your plan to stop this drama? Set up metal detectors at the school!”
Daoud told NBC News that she remembered feeling “paralyzed” after hearing that there was a shooting in the school district on Friday.
“One of my friends called me to check on my kids, he was shopping,” Daoud said. “He was scared to death, I left the store and called my husband to see where the shooting was.”
The shooting did not occur at the school Daoud’s children attend, but it was another traumatic incident that scared parents and students alike, he said.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday night, Parker said: “We have metal detection capability at all of our schools.”
But he said the devices are not used all the time, but can be activated earlier than desired based on a specific threat.
“If we sense a threat or problem, we administer random metal detection on those days,” he said. “We can check individual classrooms, individual students, and students.”
Parker, the superintendent, said the use of metal detectors could be increased and that district leaders will have that discussion. The condition of the teacher improves
Richneck Elementary School will be closed Monday and Tuesday in response to the latest shooting.
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 stabilized since she was brought to the facility.
“She has improved,” police said in the statement. “Due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, we will not release any further information at this time.”
In her message to families and staff Saturday night, Parker credited the district with having plans and procedures in place for emergencies, and the quick action by police, sheriff’s deputies, and fire department personnel to quell the situation and treat the victim in Richneck.
“While no amount of planning can guarantee that a tragedy like this won’t happen; please know that our collective efforts and preparation resulted in prompt medical care for our faculty member, no injuries for students, and a safe and efficient reunification process for our families and students,” Parker said.
‘A red flag for the country’
Richneck Principal Briana Foster Newton said in a statement: “My heart aches for our school community. The tragic event that occurred on Friday deeply impacts all of us,” she said. “My thoughts and prayers remain with our teacher who was seriously injured, and our students and staff, who are dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy.”
Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones called the shooting “a red flag for the country,” according to The Associated Press.
“I think after this event, there will be a nationwide discussion about how these kinds of things can be prevented,” he told the outlet.
In a tweet, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said he was “deeply disturbed” by the shooting and was “closely monitoring the situation.”
“My thoughts are with all the families and first responders,” he wrote.
It is unclear at this time if the 6-year-old is still in custody or if he has an attorney.
Authorities have not yet commented on where the boy might have obtained the weapon, which police described as a pistol.
Newport News Commonwealth’s attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment.