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‘No easy answer’: Newport News school shooting raises security questions

Can metal detectors and clear backpacks prevent future violence?

After a first-grader shot his teacher at Richneck Elementary, officials said they would install metal detectors and require students to use clear backpacks. (Jay Paul/Getty Images)
6 min

The shooting of a first-grade teacher in Newport News, Va., allegedly by her 6-year-old student, sent shock waves through schools across the country, rattling elementary school principals charged with keeping hundreds of schoolchildren safe every day. They and parents have spent the past week wondering: Are there any safety lessons elementary schools can draw from this exceptionally rare event?

“There’s nothing that’s going to prepare you for a first-grader to do something like that,” said Ed Cosentino, principal of Clemens Crossing Elementary in Columbia, Md., and the father of a first-grader. “It’s very hard to comprehend and wrap my head around.”

What unfolded in Newport News was not unprecedented, but it was highly unusual. Officials have said the 6-year-old boy brought a 9mm firearm legally owned by his mother to Richneck Elementary on Jan. 6. School officials, alerted to the possibility that the boy might have a gun, searched his backpack but did not find it. About 2 p.m., he shot his teacher, Abby Zwerner, in the chest as she was delivering a lesson, officials said.

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According to a Washington Post analysis, only 11 of the 62 shootings that have occurred at elementary schools since 1999 have been committed by students younger than 10, and most of them were unintentional. They include the time a 6-year-old in Houston brought a gun he found on the floor of the home where he had been staying and accidentally fired it in the cafeteria.

In response to the shooting, Newport News Schools Superintendent George Parker III said at a town hall Thursday that the school system would buy clear backpacks and install metal detectors at schools.

When it comes to securing elementary schools, officials have focused on preparing for an intruder, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. Most elementary school shootings have been committed by outsiders — not students — including the massacre at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tex., that left 19 students and two teachers dead.

“We’re used to, in our role, protecting elementary school students,” Canady said. He said it’s unclear whether a school resource officer would have made a difference, but he believes their presence deters school violence. “We’re certainly not used to a situation where a 6-year-old becomes a threat. That’s so far beyond the norm.”

That is why high schools, where officials are more concerned about students bringing weapons to school, are more likely to have measures such as school resource officers, metal detectors and random bag checks. Some of those measures are now coming to elementary schools in Newport News.

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

In a nationally representative survey conducted by the U.S. Education Department in November, between 1 and 3 percent of elementary schools use metal detectors to screen all or most students, compared with at least 12 percent of high schools. Metal detectors are also more likely to be found at schools where more than 75 percent of the students are racial minorities.

Other schools have installed different technologies to ferret out firearms. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina added body scanners at all of its high schools, middle schools and K-8 schools, according to the Charlotte Observer. Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia is weighing the same technology, Schools Superintendent LaTanya D. McDade said in a letter to parents last week.

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

Elementary school principals elsewhere said metal detectors would be impractical in their schools for many reasons. First, they said, while they might make parents feel better, they could make young children more anxious, an assertion supported by research. The National Association of School Psychologists in 2018 cautioned that some school security measures could negatively affect young people, citing research that showed that metal detectors made students feel less safe at school. There’s also no evidence they make schools safer.

“An elementary school should be a welcoming component to the community,” said Krista Arnold, a former Virginia Beach elementary school principal who now heads the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals. She said she would worry about a school environment that had the same security procedures as an airport. “There’s a lot of concern about the message it sends to have to go through a TSA-type of screening to come in.”

But there are also concerns about the amount of staff and time it would take to move hundreds of children — including preschoolers — through stationary metal detectors.

Tiffany Tresler, principal of Triadelphia Ridge Elementary in Ellicott City, Md., said the metal detectors could create a different safety hazard, forcing children to wait outside school, “which puts them in an unsafe and vulnerable situation as well.”

And the minutes spent waiting to pass through metal detectors could eat into valuable instructional time, she added.

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

Neither Tresler nor Cosentino have a school resource officer and still say they do not believe one is necessary at their schools.

Ken Trump, a school security consultant, said that when schools ask him about metal detectors, he lays out the potential benefits and pitfalls, asking them if they would like to force parents to get to schools two hours early for their children to make it to class on time. He also points out that they have to be staffed every hour the school building is open with someone who knows how to operate them.

“The bottom line is it’s just not that simple to ‘we just put this in, and it happens,’” Trump said. “The devil really is in the details of implementation.”

The answer may not be in new security measures, Arnold said. While in Virginia Beach, she piloted “morning meetings” at Parkway Elementary, gatherings intended to teach children emotional skills, nurture relationships and build community. The format varied widely, but children would be asked if they wanted to apologize to or thank a classmate, or would learn how to greet one another or what to do if they saw something wrong.

It was part of social-emotional learning, an umbrella term that refers generally to practices that teach children how to interact with one another and how to control their emotions.

“There’s no easy answer here,” Arnold said. But she added that it should involve supporting children emotionally. “Part of the answer,” she said, is about “how to build empathy, how to be a good citizen.”