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Va. lawmakers gingerly take up issue of 6-year-old with a gun

Residents of Newport News, Va., hold a candlelight vigil in honor of the Richneck Elementary School a first-grade teacher who police say was shot by her 6-year-old student. (John C. Clark/AP)

RICHMOND — Debate about this month’s shooting at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News flared on the floor of the House of Delegates on Thursday after lawmakers appeared reluctant to raise the difficult topic.

With a 6-year-old having shot and wounded his teacher, Republicans in the House are calling for legislation on school discipline, while Democrats are seeking to restrict access to guns.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), meanwhile, has said relatively little about ways to address the case even as he has focused on other school-related issues, such as investigating schools in Northern Virginia for not notifying parents about academic awards.

“In Newport News, there is an active investigation going on,” Youngkin said Thursday when asked by a reporter why he has weighed in on one situation but not the other. “This investigation is ongoing. It’s heart-wrenching and the results of which aren’t fully known yet. I applaud the leadership in Newport News.”

The Jan. 6 shooting has been in the background since the General Assembly convened this month, with some lawmakers saying privately that they’re reluctant to highlight it while the police investigation is ongoing and because of the age of the shooter. The child’s teacher, Abigail Zwerner, was hit by a single round as she was teaching a lesson. The bullet struck her hand and chest, and she rushed her other pupils out of the classroom before being taken to the hospital.

The child’s family issued a statement Thursday that the boy suffers from an “acute disability” and expressed sympathy for the teacher.

A 6-year-old is accused of shooting someone at school. He isn't the first.

Also Thursday, Del. Margaret B. Ransone (R-Westmoreland) said in a speech on the House floor that the case signifies broader issues of school safety.

“In the aftermath of the shooting at Richneck Elementary School, we’re hearing from parents about serious discipline problems in our schools,” Ransone said, citing news reports of a recent school board meeting in Newport News in which parents poured out concerns about violence.

Parents, teachers blast Newport News school board, administration after shooting

“We’re working on legislation to address this problem,” Ransone said, citing a bill now in committee that would require the state Board of Education to craft policies “that will give teachers the support they finally need to handle discipline in the classroom.”

Republicans, Ransone said, will ensure teachers “have the support they need to do their job.”

Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News) responded in her own speech that she was “very encouraged” to hear a Republican talking about school safety and voicing support for teachers, after recent political efforts to blame teachers for school shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic and to position them as opponents of the interests of parents.

“I ask that we stop talking about teachers in dehumanizing ways,” Price said. “I ask that we stop denigrating them in order to feed our campaign slogans and actually work together as teachers, parents, children and community members.”

Most important, Price said, is that “the pain my city is going through … not be used for political points.” But she said Ransone’s comments could open the door “to finally have a conversation about guns in our communities.”

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In an interview, Price said she feels that Youngkin and other Republicans would prefer talking about school issues in Northern Virginia — such as a school sexual assault case in Loudoun County that state Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R) is investigating. “When you talk about gun violence and you talk about Hampton Roads and some of the things the schools are going through, they shy away from the conversation because then they would actually have to talk about the guns, and that’s not fodder for their base,” she said.

Miyares’s office, asked earlier in the week about whether any investigation is planned, told The Washington Post: “The jurisdiction belongs to local authorities in Newport News.”

At Youngkin’s behest, Miyares is also investigating why some schools were months late in notifying students that they had been named “commended students” by the National Merit Scholarship Corp., which recognizes the highest scorers on a national standardized test. School districts have said the delays stemmed from errors, but the governor says liberal ideology was to blame.

“When there is an espoused objective for equal outcomes for all students at any cost, which is what was being trained into the system, we see, unfortunately, these kinds of decisions,” Youngkin said Thursday in a brief gathering with reporters at George W. Carver Elementary School in Richmond, after he and first lady Suzanne read “Where the Wild Things Are” to a class of first-graders.

Youngkin has commissioned lawmakers to introduce bills in the House and Senate that would require school systems to issue such notifications.

When asked if he saw a need for the state to investigate the Newport News shooting, Youngkin said he that “immediately” offered state resources to Newport News, ranging from social services to state police, but that local law enforcement officials had the matter in hand.

6-year-old who allegedly shot Va. teacher used gun legally purchased by mom, police say

The House’s minority leader, Del. Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth), criticized Youngkin for what he said was a politically driven double standard. “He gives thoughts and prayers every time there’s a mass shooting and he doesn’t offer any legislation about removing or safely storing guns, but he brings legislation to deal with students being notified about test results,” Scott said.

Democrats in the House and Senate have cited the case to call for legislation requiring that firearm owners lock up their guns when children are present. Bills to do so are awaiting committee hearings in both chambers.

Republicans who control the House, however, have said they are more interested in measures that would increase penalties for gun-related crimes.

“We want to keep families safe. We want to see our citizens protected,” said Del. Tony O. Wilt (R-Rockingham), chairman of the House Public Safety Committee. “I don’t think we gain a safer society by handcuffing law-abiding citizens. As well-intended as some of these ideas are, that’s actually what happens, and it actually creates a less safe area for the citizens.”

Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.

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