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Anger grows in Virginia city where first-grader shot teacher

‘If Abigail had been respected, she wouldn’t be in the hospital right now’
Djifa lee, a second-grade teacher at Saunders Elementary, center, stands with her daughter as she speaks in front of the Newport News School Board at the Newport News Public Schools Administration building on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Newport News, Va. Community members spoke about issues and solutions to violence in schools following the shooting at Richneck Elementary by a six-year-old that left a teacher in critical condition. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

When a 6-year-old shot and wounded his first-grade teacher in this shipbuilding city near Virginia’s coast, the community reacted with collective shock.

But the sentiment percolated over 12 days into rage from parents and particularly from teachers, with many lambasting school administrators Tuesday night for what they said was a misguided emphasis on attendance and other education statistics over the safety of children and staff.

During a three-hour school board meeting dedicated solely to public comment, Newport News teachers and parents said students who assaulted classmates and staff were routinely allowed to stay in the classroom with few consequences. They said the shooting of Abigail Zwerner could have been prevented if not for a toxic environment in which teachers’ concerns are systemically ignored.

“Every day in every one of our schools, teachers, students and other staff members are being hurt,” high school librarian Nicole Cooke told the board. “Every day, they’re hit. They’re bitten. They’re beaten. And they’re allowed to stay so that our numbers look good.”

Addressing superintendent George Parker, Cooke said: “If Abigail had been respected, she wouldn’t be in the hospital right now.”

The shooting occurred on Jan. 6 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 his teacher and fired one round, police said.

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.

Newport News police said the 6-year-old’s mother legally purchased the gun but that it was unclear how her son gained access to it.

Community reaction shifted into anger late last week after the superintendent revealed that Richneck administrators had learned the child may have had a weapon in his possession before the shooting. But a search did not find the 9mm handgun despite staff looking through his bag.

Doug Marmon, who has two children in school and two others who have graduated, called for the removal of the school system’s executive leaderships “for their failure of imagination of what could happen.”

Marmon suggested during Tuesday night’s school board meeting that the school system create a director of security and place two security officers at each elementary school.

But he also called for a change in how the school system addresses student behavior, which he said has “proven ineffective.”

“Students need to held accountable for their actions, regardless of age or circumstances — not transferred to another school or placed in a different classroom,” he said. “Equality in our schools should not include the suffering of the majority for the lack of discipline for the few.”

—Ben Finley And Denise Lavoie, The Associated Press

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