NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The shooting of a first-grade teacher by a 6-year-old boy has plunged the nation into uncharted waters of school violence, with many in the Virginia shipbuilding city where it happened demanding metal detectors in every school.
On Thursday, the Newport News School Board announced that 90 walk-through metal detectors would be placed in schools across the district, starting with Richneck Elementary School, where teacher Abigail Zwerner was shot Friday.
“The time is now to put metal detectors in all of our schools,” board Chairman Lisa Surles-Law told a news conference.
The move came even as educators and other experts nationwide grappled with the complex issue of how to prevent gun violence in even the youngest school populations.
“This is a real game changer,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which trains law enforcement members who work in schools.
People are also reading…
“How do we begin to approach the idea of protecting students and staff from an armed 6-year-old?”
American educators have long been trying to create safe spaces that feel less like prisons and more like schools. If anything, the shooting on Jan. 6 fuels a debate over the effectiveness of metal detectors — which are still relatively rare in schools — and other safety measures.
“Metal detectors and clear backpacks are more likely to cause young children to be fearful and feel criminalized,” said Amanda Nickerson, a school psychology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
“Many of the strategies being suggested do not have any research evidence, and they may actually erode a healthy school climate,” she said — one where students and staff feel free to share concerns about possible threats, which has been shown to prevent shootings.
A more effective approach fosters “positive social, emotional, behavioral and academic success,” Nickerson said.
Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare and education at the University of California, Los Angeles, said “it’s really the gun owners who need to be held responsible.”
Police in Newport News say the 6-year-old brought his mother’s gun, which had been purchased legally, to school, though it’s unclear how he gained access to it. A Virginia law prohibits leaving a loaded gun where it is accessible to a child under 14, a misdemeanor crime punishable with a maximum one-year prison sentence and $2,500 fine. No charges have been brought against the mother so far.
Astor said that a public health approach to reducing gun violence in schools is needed, as well as gun licensing.
“Let’s all agree that gun education is really important, particularly around gun safety and accidents and kids getting access to guns,” Astor said. “Let’s make that part of health class. Let’s make sure every kid, parent and educator goes through education and hazardous materials safety training in every school in the United States.”
“Gun safety education … is something that most Americans agree on, based on national polls. That’s a great place to start saving lives and reducing injury or death,” Astor said.
The shooting Friday occurred as Zwerner taught her first-grade class at Richneck Elementary. There was no warning and no struggle before the 6-year-old pointed the gun at Zwerner and fired one round.
The bullet pierced Zwerner’s hand and struck her chest. The 25-year-old hustled her students out of the classroom before being rushed to the hospital. She has improved and was listed in stable condition Monday, authorities said.
Police Chief Steve Drew described the shooting as “intentional.” A judge will determine what’s next for the child, who is being held at a medical facility following an emergency custody order.
Eric Billet, whose three children attend Newport News public schools, said he supports more security measures, like metal detectors, bag searches and a security officer at every school. But he would also like more behavioral specialists and counselors working with students.
Two of Billet’s children go to Richneck, including his fourth-grade daughter who’s endured nightmares following the shooting.
“The more challenging piece is the culture change,” he said.
“I know some teachers have had trouble controlling classrooms since COVID,” Billet added. “I do not know all of the reasons, whether it’s parenting at home or other influences, or a lack of authority and discipline at school. I definitely do not blame the teachers for this.”
Rick Fogle, whose grandson is in second grade at Richneck, supports increased use of metal detectors. But he also said schools need to be more willing to search backpacks, pockets and desks if kids are suspected of having a gun.
“They’ve got to overcome social pressure to respect people’s rights and realize that the rights of those who could be injured need to be considered,” Fogle said.
A look at some of America’s deadliest school shootings
Until the massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, the number of dead in U.S. school shootings tended to be in the single digits. Since then, the number of shootings that included schools and killed 10 or more people has mounted. The most recent two were both in Texas. In May 2022, an 18-year-old attacker killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In May 2018, a 17-year-old killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School near Houston. Most of the victims were students.