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Police say they weren’t told of report that 6-year-old had gun before Va. shooting

Rosalie List, a coworker at Richneck Elementary School, wipes a tear while speaking during a vigil for Abby Zwerner, the teacher shot by a 6-year-old student, in front of the Newport News Public Schools Administration Building on Monday. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot/AP)
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The staff of a Virginia elementary school never notified law enforcement they had received a report that a student might have a gun on campus, before the 6-year-old shot and seriously wounded a teacher last week, Newport News police said Friday.

The news comes the day after the Newport News schools superintendent told parents at Richneck Elementary that school officials had received word the boy might have a gun and searched his backpack — but didn’t find the weapon — in the hours before he opened fire.

Newport News police and school officials did not provide additional details Friday that would clarify how school officials handled events leading up to the shooting, which has grabbed national attention. Police cited the ongoing investigation and school officials did not respond to questions.

Left unanswered were questions about who reported that the boy may have had a gun and how a small child was able to conceal a 9-millimeter firearm. Also unanswered were questions about how the 6-year-old got the weapon from home and whether there were any other disciplinary incidents in the boy’s time at the school or concerns about his home life.

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School officials also did not respond to a query about why they did not tell police they received a report of a possible gun on campus. Virginia law requires schools to notify law enforcement of anyone caught carrying a firearm, but the law does not appear to require them to alert authorities when they receive a report of a firearm.

Some parents at Richneck were frustrated with the slow dribble of details and school officials’ response. Jessica Armour has a 10-year-old son enrolled at Richneck; the week of the shooting was his first week at the school, to which he transferred midyear.

Armour said she cannot understand why school officials, alerted to the possibility that the 6-year-old might have a weapon, apparently did little beyond search the student’s backpack. At the very least, they could have searched the places the boy stored his belongings at school, she said.

“Clearly the young boy knew enough to hide it someplace else,” Armour said, referring to the weapon police said the 6-year-old used to shoot his teacher. “He could’ve hidden it in his desk. Kids are smart.”

The six-year-old intentionally shot first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner around 2 p.m. on Jan. 6 as the school day drew to a close, police said. The boy had the gun on him at the time and fired a single round as Zwerner was in the middle of a lesson, police said. The bullet struck her hand and chest and she was rushed to the hospital where she remains in stable condition. A motive remains under investigation.

The boy was taken into custody and police said he was under court-ordered mental health treatment earlier this week. On Friday, city officials said for the first time he is in the care of the Newport News Department of Human Services, but they declined to offer details about his treatment or where he might be placed.

Before shooting, backpack of 6-year-old searched by school staff

Legal experts said it’s unlikely the boy would be charged with a crime, since it is presumed under state law that young children cannot form the intent to carry out an illegal act and do not have the ability to understand legal proceedings against them.

Newport News police said earlier this week they were probing whether the boy’s mother might be charged for failing to properly secure the gun, which she purchased legally and stored in their home. The investigation of how the weapon ended up with the boy is ongoing.

“The NNPD is conducting the investigation, which had included a series of interviews, reviewing records and possible search warrants,” police spokeswoman Kelly T. King wrote in an email. “Once the investigation is complete, it will be presented to the Commonwealth’s Attorney who will make the decision regarding any charges.”

Newport News schools superintendent George Parker III said in a town hall with Richneck parents Thursday the district was purchasing metal detectors to install in the city’s schools, as well as buying clear backpacks that would be distributed to students. They were also consulting with school officials in Uvalde, Tex., the scene of another horrific school shooting last year.

Earlier Thursday, school board chair Lisa Surles-Law said unspecified “administrative changes” would be made at Richneck in the wake of the shooting and the board went into a closed session to discuss a personnel issue. The outcome of the meeting was not made public.

The district will also solicit suggestions from employees on how to make schools safer during a “safety teacher workday” and review school disciplinary records. It has yet to be decided when Richneck students will return to class.