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Opinion How society failed the 6-year-old accused of shooting his teacher

Children arrive at Richneck Elementary School on Jan. 30 in Newport News, Va. (Kristen Zeis for The Washington Post)
5 min

How did society fail the 6-year-old boy accused of shooting his teacher in a Virginia classroom? And what does it owe him now? Answering those questions can help us clarify our obligations to all children, including the most vulnerable.

What the public has learned about the boy’s life before the shooting is both frightening and terribly sad.

The small child “threw furniture and other items in class,” “barricaded the doors to a classroom” and talked about wanting “to light a teacher on fire and watch her die.” Clearly, he was struggling. Acknowledging that such behavior signals a need for support takes nothing away from the fear of the people subjected to it.

After all, a 6-year-old “is really a very vulnerable little person, very sensitive emotionally” under the best of circumstances, child development specialists Frances L. Ilg and Louise Bates Ames wrote in “Your Six-Year-Old: Loving and Defiant,” part of their classic book series on parenting and child development, in 1979. Almost 25 years later, “The Yale Child Study Center Guide To Understanding Your Child” noted that at 6 years old a child is just gradually developing “the ability to recognize and tolerate the limits imposed by reality.”

How Richneck Elementary failed to stop a 6-year-old from shooting his teacher

Reporting by my colleagues at The Post suggests that the adults in this boy’s life were trying to support him as he navigated an unspecified “acute disability.” His teacher asked for help. His parents were, until the day of the alleged shooting, attending class with him.

But the Newport News, Va., school system, like many others, is experiencing ongoing teacher shortages. Last summer, the district was looking to hire 300 teachers, special education professionals and school psychologists. As of September, 260 of those positions were still open.

Filling them wouldn’t have guaranteed peaceful classrooms. Still, adequate staffing might have given the teacher, Abigail Zwerner, or the boy’s parents a break and let the school direct resources to children struggling in less spectacular and urgent ways. And it would certainly have left the district better prepared for the aftermath of the shooting.

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This long-term failure to help this specific child — though not for lack of great effort — appears to have been compounded by a more scandalous short-term abdication of duty on the day of the alleged shooting. Three times, school administrators were apparently informed that the child had threatened another student or that he might possess a gun. Three times, they neglected to remove him from class or to conduct a thorough search for a weapon.

The system failed to protect the boy’s teacher from being shot. It failed to protect her students from the trauma of seeing their teacher wounded. And it failed to save a child from committing a heinous act.

It doesn’t diminish the nature of this crime to say that 6-year-olds may still be in the process of learning that death is final, or that, as Bates and Ilg put it, “Good ethical behavior in many comes much later than Six.” Even children who are well begun on what William Damon described in “Moral Child” — his foundational 1988 book — as “a gradual process” of developing ethical sense may need considerable help to live up to their own evolving “values and behavioral standards.” Rather, it is a reminder of grown-ups’ responsibility to safeguard children from their own impulses.

So, what should come next for this child in Virginia?

Proposals are elusive. That is, in part, because young children commit serious crimes very, very rarely. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, just 5 of 16,425 “murder offenders” in 2019 were 8 years old or younger. Another 16 who fatally wounded someone were aged between 9 and 12. In 2018, there were just two “murder offenders” 8 or younger, and in 2017 there was only one. (Age breakdowns are not available for other categories of violent crime.)

The United States lacks consensus on a question as basic as the youngest age at which a child can be prosecuted: Virginia, similar to 23 other states, has no minimum age for charging a child with a crime. The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10; the global average is 14.

Nor do we know enough to make sure the first crimes committed by children are also their last. As a newsletter from the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention acknowledged in 2020, “national recidivism rates are not available.” The agencies that are supposed to collect that data don’t do so in consistent formats and use incompatible software. Even if they wanted to share their findings, they couldn’t. The Justice Department has created grants intended to rectify this void.

Meanwhile, it’s better for adults dealing with extremely young offenders to be guided by common sense and compassion rather than denial and fear.

To an extent, that appears to be happening in Virginia. The 6-year-old was hospitalized. His name and those of his family members have not been released. The police, wisely, are including state child protective services, in their investigative process. Whatever therapy and support the family was receiving before the shooting, they’ll need much more of it now.

It might not always be possible to prevent a troubled child from doing something terrible. The best therapy and education may not enable a child to recover from a moral injury he did to himself while hurting others. But when small children commit serious crimes, adults ought to be able to say that we did our very best — not just on behalf of one child, but for all of them.