Virginia 6-Year-Old Who Shot Teacher Won’t Be Charged, Says Prosecutor

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By NTD Newsroom
March 10, 2023US News
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Virginia 6-Year-Old Who Shot Teacher Won’t Be Charged, Says Prosecutor
Signs stand outside Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., on Jan. 25, 2023. (Denise Lavoie/AP Photo)

The 6-year-old boy who shot his first-grade teacher in January will not be charged, the city prosecutor in Newport News, Virginia, told NBC News on Wednesday, but he has not yet decided whether any adults associated with the case could be.

In an interview with NBC News, Newport News Commonwealth Attorney Howard Gwynn said the “prospect that a 6-year-old can stand trial is problematic.”

Though, in theory, a child that young could be arrested and criminally charged, Gwynn said, it’s uncertain whether he would have the competency to understand the legal system or even what a charge means, and he also would be unlikely to effectively assist an attorney in his defense.

Because the city prosecutor does not believe there is a “legal basis” to charge a child, Gwynn went on to tell the news outlet that his office is focusing on others.

“Our objective is not just to do something as quickly as possible,” he said. “Once we analyze the facts, we will charge any person or persons that we believe we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt committed a crime.”

Around 2 p.m. on the afternoon of Jan. 6, the boy shot his teacher, 25-year-old Abigail Zwerner, with a Taurus 9-millimeter handgun that his mother owned, Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said in a press conference on Facebook Live held three days after the incident.

He went on to describe the situation, where Zwerner was teaching in her classroom at Richneck Elementary School when the boy walked up to her, pointed the gun, and fired one round. Zwerner put up her hand in a “defensive position” when the gun went off, causing the bullet to go through her hand and into her upper chest.

“She suffered a gunshot wound, but she was able to get all of her students out of that classroom,” Drew said. “From the video surveillance we have of the hallway … Mrs. Zwerner was the last person to leave that classroom.”

The teacher’s actions that day inspired Mayor of Newport News Phillip Jones to call Zwerner a “hero.”

Within five minutes of being notified, police arrived on the scene, Drew said. Within seven minutes, medics arrived, and five minutes after that, Zwerner was already “transported to a local hospital,” where she remained for about two weeks.

School Administrators’ Response

A potential lawsuit against the Newport News School District on the behalf of Zwerner is forthcoming, NBC reported. According to the victim’s attorney, the boy had a history of behavioral issues and “troubling interactions with school staff and other students.”

Two days before the shooting, the school had given the boy a one-day suspension for slamming and breaking Zwerner’s cellphone and cursing at guidance counselors, according to a CNN report. The next day after his suspension, he returned to school with the firearm and shot her.

During a news conference in January, Zwerner’s attorney Diane Toscano said that the shooting was “entirely preventable” if school administrators “responsible for school safety had done their part and taken action when they had knowledge of imminent danger,” NBC reported. “But instead, they failed to act, and Abby was shot.”

Toscano alleged that at least three teachers and employees went to school administrators with concerns about the boy’s behavior on the day of the incident. “But the administration could not be bothered,” she told Fox News.

She went on to relate the details of one such teacher’s warning to administrators. Around 12:30 p.m. that day, Toscano alleged, a teacher at the school had searched the boy’s backpack but didn’t find a gun. Worried that he had put the gun in his pocket before going out for recess, the teacher told a school administrator, who reportedly dismissed the warning, saying, “Well, he has little pockets.”

In the wake of the shooting, the school’s assistant principal resigned, and Newport News School District “reassigned” Richneck Elementary’s school principal. The Newport News School Board also “ousted” the district superintendent with a vote of 5 to 1, according to CNN.

Boy’s Parents Could Be Found at Fault

On Jan. 19, the boy’s parents released a statement through their attorney James Ellenson, where they said that their son “suffers from an acute disability” and was under a care plan at the school that called for one of his parents to accompany him to class every day.

“The week of the shooting was the first week when we were not in class with him,” the statement said. “We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives.”

Ellenson told The Associated Press (AP) that the care plan mentioned in the statement was an “individualized education program” (or IEP), which under federal law requires schools to provide for children with disabilities.

The parents’ statement didn’t specify what kind of disability the boy suffered from, but when AP asked if it was intellectual or behavioral, Ellenson said, “all of the above.” He also mentioned that the decision for the parents to stop accompanying the boy to class “was a joint decision between the school and the parents.”

The statement also noted that the family “has always been committed to responsible gun ownership and keeping firearms out of the reach of children. The firearm our son accessed was secured.”

The statement didn’t explain how the gun was “secure,” but Ellenson told AP that the gun had been legally purchased, was secured with a trigger lock “that requires a key, similar to a bike lock,” and kept on the top shelf of the mother’s bedroom closet “that was well over six feet high.”

When AP asked how the child may have gotten access to the gun, Ellenson said, “We don’t know.”

Under current Virginia law, any adult who “recklessly” leaves a “loaded, unsecured firearm in such a manner as to endanger the life or limb of any child under the age of fourteen” is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable for up to one year in prison and a $2,500 fine.

However, the commonwealth does not have a law that requires unattended guns to be stored or locked in a particular way.

“Virginia definitely has a weaker law than many other states that have child access prevention laws,” senior counsel and director of local policy at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence told AP.

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