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Before shooting, backpack of Va. 6-year-old searched by school staffer

The search was prompted by a report the child may have had a weapon, a school system spokesperson said

Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew speaks at an earlier news conference about the incident in which police say a 6-year-old boy shot and wounded his first-grade teacher. (Kristen Zeis/For The Washington Post)
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In the hours before a Virginia 6-year-old allegedly shot his teacher, a school staffer had searched the child’s backpack looking for a weapon, a school district spokesperson said Thursday.

The search, revealed for the first time during a meeting school officials held for parents, was conducted after a report was made that the student may have had a weapon, the spokesperson said. No weapon was found.

Newport News Public Schools Superintendent George Parker III told Richneck Elementary parents during the meeting that officials found a 9mm handgun in the boy’s possession after the shooting.

District spokeswoman Michelle Price wrote in an email late Thursday that she did not know the answers to several other questions about the incident, including who reported the weapon and where authorities believe the 6-year-old hid the weapon during the search.

The new details are sure to prompt more questions from a community that is already dissatisfied with the school district’s response to the shooting, which follows two other shootings in the system.

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Earlier Thursday, Newport News school officials announced they are making several changes to boost safety, including installing metal detectors at every campus in the system.

The district will hold a systemwide “safety teacher workday” during which administrators will solicit suggestions from school employees on how to make schools safer — and officials plan to review all student discipline and behavior records to identify “incidents that were elevated to central office,” school board Chair Lisa Surles-Law said at a news conference Thursday.

The district further plans to make “administrative changes” at Richneck Elmentary, Surles-Law said, although she declined to give more specifics. Richneck will be the first campus to receive metal detectors, a safety measure employed mostly at middle and high schools.

District spokeswoman Price said officials have not yet decided when Richneck students can return to class; they have been kept out of school since last week’s shooting.

“Richneck teachers and staff are doing the work preparing to be reunited with their students very soon,” Surles-Law said. “We understand this has been a difficult and very uncertain time for everyone and we are truly sorry this has happened during our watch.”

According to authorities, the 6-year-old shot Richneck teacher Abigail Zwerner intentionally on Friday as she was teaching her first-grade class. The bullet passed through Zwerner’s raised hand and into her chest, wounding her gravely, police have said. She nonetheless ushered more than a dozen of her students to safety before seeking medical help.

It remains unclear what precipitated the incident, and how the boy would have gotten the gun, which police have said was kept at home. The mother of the 6-year-old purchased the weapon legally in York County, Va., Newport News police have said.

Zwerner was taken to a hospital, police have said, where her condition improved from life-threatening to stable. Soon she was asking questions of friends, family and authorities, including, “Do you know how my students are?”

Police have said the 6-year-old was restrained by a school employee after the shooting until law enforcement arrived, and taken to a hospital, where he underwent evaluation followed by court-ordered mental health treatment.

The legal path forward for the child could be complicated. Virginia law presumes that young children do not have the intent to commit an illegal act.

Since 1999, there have been at least 11 cases in which children 10 or younger were responsible for shootings at schools. In all but one of the cases where children brought guns from home to their elementary schools, prosecutors filed charges against adults.

The shooting comes amid a troubled period for the Newport News district, which has now seen three incidents with guns in the last year-and-a-half. In September 2021, a 15-year-old fired shots in the hallway of Heritage High School during a fight at lunchtime, according to NBC affiliate WAVY of Portsmouth, earning him a 10-year prison sentence. Two teenagers were wounded by the gunfire and one of them suffered permanent hearing loss, WAVY reported.

Less than two months later, an 18-year-old Warwick High School student fatally shot a 17-year-old Woodside High School student after a basketball game, according to WAVY. That student was charged with murder but claimed self-defense, WAVY reported, and his trial ended when a hung jury could not agree whether to find him guilty of murder or manslaughter, or find him innocent. He was found guilty of possessing and discharging a weapon on school property.

Amanda D’Onofrio, a parent of a preschooler and kindergartner in the Newport News system, said she contacted school board members to raise concerns about security earlier this year. D’Onofrio said she met with one of the board members in June.

“I expressed to him that I have a high amount of dissatisfaction,” D’Onofrio said. “We’re doing nothing and I’m tired of being idle.”

Zwerner’s shooting has spurred condemnation of the administration and its response to the recent violent incidents in the system. Some in Newport News are calling for new leadership, including the resignation or firing of the district superintendent, George Parker III.

The school board went into closed session Thursday afternoon to handle a personnel issue. It is unclear what resulted from that meeting, although Parker’s job does not appear to be in danger: Surles-Law noted that any personnel changes would be taking place at Richneck Elementary. She added that Parker was busy preparing for a town hall with Richneck families scheduled for Thursday evening. And, responding to a question from a reporter at Thursday’s news conference, she said Parker has the school board’s full support.

Still, Thomas Aman, a resident and chairman of the Newport News Republicans, said he would like to see a leadership change at the highest levels.

“After three shootings in 17 months,” Aman said, “I feel it is incumbent on [the superintendent] to resign and/or be terminated.”

Pete Mercier, a former music teacher who worked for 16 years in the Newport News district, said the teachers he knows still working in the system are anxious and scared. And he, too, expressed a desire for an administrative shake-up.

“The district has a way of not responding at the highest levels,” he said. “The teachers don’t know what to make of it; they appear to be a mess right now and I don’t think they feel particularly safe.”

Julianne Marse, 61, who retired in December 2019 from her job as an assistant principal in the Newport News system, said the Richneck shooting brought back memories of a troublesome 6-year-old she dealt with in her old job. That student could not handle the classroom environment so he was sent to her office every day, she said, where he routinely destroyed objects and kicked, bit and punched her.

She said she met with the superintendent the month she retired to raise concerns, and that administrators fired her executive director but little else happened.

“I laid out to the superintendent then that our schools are out of control and teachers have no resources,” Marse said. “Now here we are with a teacher shot in the chest so the question is, what’s going to be done?”

Price, the district spokeswoman, did not immediately respond to requests for comment about criticisms of school disciplinary procedures Thursday evening. She also did not respond to a question asking whether the superintendent’s firing or investigation is under consideration.

Meanwhile, Kristen Cedeno-Parham’s 5-year-old kindergartner just wants to go back to school.

After the shooting, her daughter’s classroom went into lockdown. The teacher turned off the lights and read a book, informing the students only that there was a bad person in the school. Cedeno-Parham’s daughter was quiet on Friday and Saturday, she said, only speaking up to share that she felt scared.

She loves Richneck Elementary and misses her friends and her teacher, Cedeno-Parham said. The mother wonders whether it wouldn’t be better for her daughter, and all the other students, to get back into some sort of familiar routine.

“At least let the kids go back, be around people they see on a daily basis,” Cedeno-Parham said. “They could probably cope better distracted and together than far apart and isolated.”