The prosecutor sat at a small table across from a 6-year-old boy, watching him color. The kid smiled, showing off the gaps from the front teeth he had just lost. He said he was expecting a visit from the tooth fairy soon.
Art Busch, the prosecutor, was still grappling with what had happened at Buell Elementary outside Flint, Mich., on Feb. 29, 2000. The boy had approached a girl in his class, then raised a gun and shot her in the chest. Kayla Rolland, who was also 6, died soon after.
Busch knew from the beginning that the boy was too young to be charged with any crime, but he wanted to understand if a child that age could grasp what he had done. So the prosecutor decided to visit the boy at his temporary home, a center for abused and neglected children in Flint. The boy told Busch about his favorite plush toys and said he was excited to meet the Easter Bunny. He said he liked where he was living. The people who worked there read books to him.
The prosecutor left that day, convinced.
“This kid’s a baby,” Busch recalled thinking. “He doesn’t have the ability to form an intent to commit murder.”
His memories of the case rushed back to him Friday afternoon, when he heard about a 6-year-old boy in Virginia who, according to police, had shot his teacher — on purpose.
America grew accustomed to school shootings long ago, but the one at Richneck Elementary in Newport News elicited a different sort of horror. All weekend, people throughout the community, and far beyond, struggled to process the news. How, they wondered, could a child just old enough to tie his shoes and add up numbers commit such a violent act?
On Monday, at a news conference where investigators announced the gun had belonged to the boy’s mother, both the schools superintendent and police chief described the shooting as “unprecedented.”
But in this country, almost no form of gun violence is unique. Since 1999, most shootings at K-12 campuses — 69 percent — happened at high schools, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Among the 62 at elementary schools, 49 were committed by adults or teens. In at least 11 cases, though, the person who pulled the trigger was no older than 10.
In nine of those shootings, children brought the loaded guns from home. In the other two, the children fired weapons police brought to campus.
Most of the shootings were unintentional.
In Houston, a 6-year-old boy found a .380-caliber handgun on the floor of a home where he was staying, took the weapon to school and accidentally fired it in the cafeteria, wounding himself and two other children. In Chicago, an 8-year-old boy brought a gun he had found under his mother’s bed, and when it went off in his backpack, the round nicked a 7-year-old’s stomach. In California, a child younger than 11 spotted an AR-15 mounted to the side of a police motorcycle — at the school that day as part of a safety presentation — and he squeezed the trigger, wounding three students.
The lone case that directly compares to the shooting in Virginia was the one in Michigan, 23 years ago.
Within hours of Kayla’s death, Busch recalled, his focus turned to how a first-grader could have gotten a loaded gun in the first place.
Investigators soon learned that the .32-caliber semiautomatic had been stored in a shoe box, along with chocolate candies, at what they described as a drug house where the boy often stayed. He had played with it before, Busch said, twirling it on his finger like a revolver from the Old West.
The 19-year-old man accused of owning the weapon later pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and served over two years behind bars.
The boy had been chronically neglected, Busch said, but even after he was taken from his parents and placed into foster care, some people wanted him punished, an irrational desire that the former prosecutor worried could surface in Newport News.
Police reviewing the Richneck Elementary shooting haven’t released any information on the boy’s home life or what might have precipitated the attack on his teacher, who survived a bullet wound to her chest.
“You have two victims in these kinds of cases,” Busch said. “You have the child who’s been victimized by somebody else, to the point that they can’t keep them safe.”
Natalie Poss, a retired teacher in Washington state, reached the same conclusion after one of her third-graders accidentally shot another a decade ago.
It was the end of a short February day at Armin Jahr Elementary in Bremerton, an hour west of Seattle across Puget Sound, and Poss was giving cookies to the students who had their coats and backpacks ready. As usual, a soft-spoken 8-year-old named Amina Kocer-Bowman was the first to comply.
Later, other kids in the room would describe a boy slamming his backpack on a desk. Poss heard a loud bang, and when she turned around, Amina had slumped to the floor.
Rushing over, Poss saw a trickle of red coming from Amina’s sleeve.
“Leave the classroom,” she ordered the other students. “Get help for Amina.”
When she opened the girl’s coat, blood gushed from the child’s side, saturating her clothes. A hollow-point bullet had passed through her elbow and into her midsection. Talking constantly to Amina, she pressed her palm against the hole.
The teacher never let up on the wound or the calming words to her student. Only when the paramedics arrived to take her place did Poss stand up and soon began to shake.
She rode with Amina in the ambulance and stayed with her through much of the terror of the trauma center. But first, as the medics worked on the girl, she began opening backpacks with her bloodied hands.
In one, with a hole blown through the bottom, she found a Heckler & Koch .45. She was stunned to see the name of an unassuming 9-year-old boy written on the bag.
“He was never on my radar as one that would bring a gun to school,” Poss said.
Amina recovered, after multiple surgeries and months in the hospital.
Her family moved away, but Poss, now 66, remained in touch. She saw her graduate from high school, that hollow-point still lodged near her spine.
The students never returned to that classroom, where so much of Amina’s blood had poured out they had to replace the carpet.
The boy with the gun never returned to the school at all. He was arrested, held on $50,000 bond, and charged in juvenile court with assault and unlawful possession of a firearm. Wearing an orange jumpsuit, he tearfully told a judge he had trouble reading the documents. A year later, the charges were dismissed after the boy complied with court directives to get counseling and write a letter of apology.
“I’m sorry I hurt you because I brought a gun to school,” he wrote to Amina. “I wish you were out of the hospital playing basketball and going back to school.”
The charges against him infuriated Poss, who argued that his parents were entirely to blame.
He had taken the gun, which belonged to his mother’s boyfriend, from a glove compartment. The mother and boyfriend were charged with unlawful possession and felony third-degree assault. They pleaded to lesser charges, and the mother was sentenced to 14 months in prison.
“Who leaves a loaded .45 laying around?” Poss asked.
Lots of people, as it turns out. As of 2015, as many as 4.6 million children lived in homes with at least one loaded, unlocked firearm. According to the Giffords Law Center, 23 states and the District have passed legislation requiring people to secure their firearms, though the regulations vary widely, as does the enforcement of them.
Among the cases in which children brought guns from home to their elementary school and someone fired them, a Post analysis found that prosecutors declined to file charges against an adult only once. In Newport News, authorities say they have yet to decide what to do, citing the ongoing investigation.
Krista LeBleu learned about the shooting in Virginia from her 18-year-old daughter, Gracie, who texted her over the weekend.
“I don’t understand how a 6-7 year old [could] do that,” Gracie wrote. “but then again gage.”
“I know,” LeBleu replied, “it’s sad.”
Gage Meche is LeBleu’s son, and one day six years ago, a gun slipped out of another student’s backpack and landed on the floor of their first-grade classroom at Moss Bluff Elementary in southern Louisiana. When a girl Gage had known since they were toddlers picked it up, the pistol fired, discharging a .380 round that blew through his stomach, tearing into his intestines and nicking a vena cava vein, which carries blood to the heart. Gage was 7.
Investigators traced the gun to Michael Dugas. He had given it to his 17-year-old son, who kept it in his room loaded, unlocked and inside a bag that hung on the wall. The teen’s younger brother found the weapon and slipped it into his backpack.
Dugas was charged with two misdemeanors, eventually receiving six months in prison for his negligence.
Gage, who turns 13 next month, endured four surgeries but still walks with a limp. His pain persists, often throbbing from his heels to his head. LeBleu is reluctant to give him prescribed medication, worried that he will develop an addiction.
The boy attends counseling, though he seldom talks about what happened. He sometimes contends with anger that he can’t control.
This fall, he switched to the same school as the girl who shot him, LeBleu said. She, too, had suffered in the aftermath, haunted by guilt and post-traumatic stress. They hadn’t seen each other in years. Gage doesn’t blame her, but he once confided to his mother that the girl frightened him.
In August, before classes started, he and his mom toured his new campus, and as they walked down a hallway, the girl appeared in front of them. When Gage saw her, LeBleu noticed, he turned away, staring out a window and fighting to stay composed until she passed. He couldn’t bear to face her.
Elizabeth Krasinski, 34, has spent most of her life reckoning with the complex trauma that comes after a child fires a shot inside an elementary school. She was 11 when the boy at Buell killed Kayla, her little sister.
At the hospital, when Krasinski’s mother told her that Kayla was dead, she refused to believe it.
“Kayla’s playing a trick,” Krasinski insisted. “Just let me go in and talk to my sister.”
She couldn’t imagine Kayla was gone. Her sister, she thought, was too confident and sassy and headstrong to stop living.
Her mom let her inside the hospital room, and Krasinski rushed over to Kayla, whose skin had begun to turn blue. Krasinski shook her.
“She didn’t wake up,” Krasinski remembered.
Their final conversation tormented her for years. The morning of the shooting, Kayla didn’t want to go to school, but Krasinski knew they would get in trouble if she didn’t. They argued, screaming at each other.
The last thing Krasinski told Kayla was that she hated her, and her sister said the same thing back.
She long wrestled with shame over what they had told each other, and bitterness that her sister — “my soul mate” — missed so many moments in Krasinski’s life. Therapy helped, as did the birth of her first daughter, whom she named Kayla.
Krasinski, a housekeeper, has four kids now, and they are not allowed to use the word “hate” when they fight.
The one person she never resented was the 6-year-old boy who pulled the trigger. Even as a child, she didn’t hold him responsible.
In Krasinski’s mind, he was no different from her sister: one more child whom too many adults had failed to protect.
Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.