school shootings

A 6-Year-Old Shot His Teacher — Now What?

Photo: Jay Paul/Getty Images

School shootings have become a consistent part of American life, but no one was prepared for a 6-year-old to bring a gun to school and shoot a teacher. In early January, it was reported that a young student shot his first-grade teacher at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia. The teacher, later identified as Abby Zwerner, sustained life-threatening injuries but has since been released from the hospital, and the 6-year-old shooter is reportedly receiving care at a medical facility. Given his age, it is unlikely that any charges will be filed against him.

The investigation is still ongoing, and new reports suggest that, prior to the shooting, school administrators had been warned about the boy by three teachers who told them he was believed to have a gun at the school.

The Washington Post, in interviews with dozens of people, found that the student had a history of poor conduct, that administrators had not taken warnings about him seriously, and that immediately after the shooting, two second-grade classes had to wander the hallways looking for a place to hide because their classrooms did not have doors.

Here’s everything we know:

A 6-year-old boy brought a handgun to school and shot his first-grade teacher.

In a press conference a few days after the shooting, Police Chief Steve Drew detailed the shooting, saying that the boy fired one shot, hitting his teacher’s hand and chest in what he called “not an accidental shooting.” Authorities recovered one shell casing from the scene, per ABC News, and it’s believed that the boy was subdued by a school employee by the time police arrived. No other children were physically harmed, but the elementary school has been temporarily closed ever since.

The motive for the shooting remains unclear. Brittaney Gregory, whose son was reportedly in the class, told the Washington Post that the child took a handgun from his backpack and pointed it at the teacher as the class was preparing to go to art. “She was going to confiscate it, and that’s when he shot,” Gregory said. According to her, the teacher then instructed her students to run, and they stayed in lockdown in another teacher’s classroom. (Drew clarified during his press conference that the boy seemed to take the gun from “his person,” not his backpack.)

Before the shooting, school administrators were reportedly warned three times that the boy had a gun.

Almost three weeks after the shooting, Zwerner broke her silence via her attorney, Diane Toscano. Speaking at a press conference, Toscano announced that Zwerner would be filing a lawsuit against the Newport News school district, claiming school administrators had failed to respond after being warned that the boy had a gun.

As reported by NBC News, Toscano told the press that Zwerner had first approached a school administrator about the boy’s behavior earlier in the day after he threatened to beat up a classmate. An hour later, another teacher reportedly told the administrator that they had searched the boy’s backpack for a weapon, and soon after that, a third teacher reportedly told an administrator the boy had threatened a classmate with a gun at recess.

Toscano further claimed that a fourth school employee had requested to search the boy’s person but was denied, with the administrator allegedly telling the employee to “wait the situation out because the school day was almost over.” Soon after, the boy pulled out the gun in class and shot his teacher.

Richneck Elementary School has yet to reopen since the shooting, but a new school administrator is reportedly in charge.

In September, the 6-year-old was moved to a half-day schedule due to poor conduct and he was suspended for a day after slamming Zwerner’s phone, according to the Washington Post. Per the Post, Zwerner texted a friend that administrators blamed her for the phone incident. School employees and records obtained by the Post reportedly show that the boy allegedly attempted to strangle his kindergarten teacher.

Where does a 6-year-old get a gun?

A few days after the shooting, police confirmed that the handgun used in the shooting belonged to the boy’s mother and was legally purchased. As noted by the New York Times, it is against Virginia law to leave a loaded gun somewhere accessible to children under 14. No charges have been filed, but at a press conference, Chief Drew did not rule out potential charges against the child’s parents.

In their first public statement, the boy’s parents said they didn’t know how their son had obtained the gun, saying they were committed to “responsible gun ownership and keeping firearms out of the reach of children.” The family’s attorney, James Ellenson, told CNN that the gun, which had a trigger lock, was kept on the top shelf of his mother’s bedroom closet.

Where is the 6-year-old shooter now?

Immediately after the shooting, the 6-year-old was reportedly taken to the hospital and was later transferred to another medical facility for treatment. ABC News also reported that because of the shooter’s young age — a rare case with no clear protocol — Drew had reached out to Child Protective Services, Human Services, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, and the Community Service Board for advice on how to proceed. Newport News mayor Phillip D. Jones issued a statement on the day of the shooting, stating that authorities were “working to ensure the child receives the supports and services he needs as we continue to process what took place.”

In their first public statement since the shooting, the 6-year-old’s parents said he has an “acute disability,” per the Times. The boy had previously been accompanied to school every day by either his mother or father, but that had ended the week of the shooting. “We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives,” the statement read. The family said the boy was currently “under hospital care and receiving the treatment he needs.”

Can a 6-year-old be charged with a crime?

The investigation is ongoing, and it’s unclear what, if any, legal action will or can be taken. The Times reported that the minimum age to be sentenced to a juvenile prison in Virginia is 11, and a 6-year-old cannot be charged as an adult. “The juvenile justice system is not really equipped to deal with really young kids who commit criminal offenses and is probably the wrong place to deal with a situation like this,” said University of Virginia School of Law professor Andrew Block. Speaking with the Post, Block said that children under the age of 7 generally do not have the ability to form intent to commit a crime, nor do they have the mental capacity to understand what it means to stand trial. “You have to understand the nature of legal proceedings against you and assist in your own defense. There’s no way a 6-year-old would meet that criteria.”

During a press conference, Drew reiterated that the shooting “was not accidental” — adding, “It was intentional” — and suggested that the child did not intend or try to shoot any of his fellow students.

Virginia Republicans blocked a firearms-storage bill just last year.

Following the news of the shooting, multiple members of the Virginia House Democratic Caucus tweeted about Schuyler T. VanValkenburg’s 2022 bill HB 590, which attempted to make any gun owner living in a residence with a minor store their firearm “unloaded in a locked container, compartment, or cabinet.”

This post has been updated.

A 6-Year-Old Shot His Teacher — Now What?