(NEWPORT NEWS, Va.) — Parents, teachers and community members made their frustrations known at a Newport News, Virginia, school board meeting Tuesday night after a 6-year-old student intentionally shot his first grade teacher during class earlier this month.
The 25-year-old teacher, Abby Zwerner, was shot through the hand and into her stomach. She was rushed to the hospital with life-threatening injuries, but is now recovering. Authorities have said the 6-year-old’s backpack was searched prior to the shooting after a fellow student said they saw a gun. No gun was found in the backpack.
A woman named Desiree, the parent of a student in Zwerner’s class, called the teacher an “advocate” for her daughter — who she said was being bullied at Richneck Elementary School. Desiree’s daughter watched in horror as her 6-year-old classmate shot her beloved teacher.
“She’s 6, she’s terrified because the person who was advocating for her got hurt,” Desiree, who only wanted to be referred to by her first name, told the school board, which was gathering for public comment for the first time since the shooting.
Desiree, like many parents and students who spoke during Tuesday’s town hall, alleged that complaints to school and county leaders about safety, bullying and security fell on deaf ears prior to the shooting on Jan. 6. Desiree sobbed at the podium during her remarks, with Lisa R. Surles-Law, chair of the school board, leaving her seat to console the mother.
There was no timeline given during the two-hour school board meeting for when students at Richneck Elementary would go back to class.
“This should have been isolated beforehand to prevent Ms. Zwerner from getting hurt, because she was defending and protecting your children,” Desiree said. “You guys should have been defending her — protecting her when whoever came in [and] said that there was a possible weapon in that child’s backpack.”
“Listen to your teachers. Listen to your staff. Listen to them when they’re asking for help,” she added in an interview with Hampton, Virginia, ABC affiliate WVEC-TV.
At times during the nearly three-hour school board meeting, parents were critical about the lack of communication between themselves and school leaders after the shooting.
Kasey Sypolt, a Richneck parent, spoke directly to Newport News Superintendent Dr. George Parker and the school board members, saying, “I hope that none of you ever have to receive a text message from your elementary school child, but he’s terrified. I did not hear from the school until I was already there.”
Sypolt, who works as a special education teacher in another school district, noted that the shooting “didn’t happen because Ms. Zwerner wasn’t doing everything that she could to provide support to her students. This happened because a weapon was reported, behavior concerns were also reported, and the administration did not take them seriously.”
The school is currently in the “rescue phase” with the goal of ensuring safety, the school board said. In addition, the board said it was seeking advice from officials at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where a shooting killed 19 students and two teachers last May. The board said it will also work with the Department of Education to figure out the next steps for students at Richneck Elementary School.
The shooting at Richneck Elementary School was the third on school grounds in Newport News in 18 months. Two people were injured in a shooting at Heritage High School in September 2021 and a teen was killed outside Menchville High School after a basketball game in December 2021.
The Newport News school system told parents on Tuesday that several new safety measures would take place at Richneck, including a full-time security guard, a fully staffed front office and access to a security wand. School officials already announced last week that metal detectors would be placed on campus.
The Newport News School Board said it was considering additional safety measures, including continuous metal screening capabilities for all visitors, clear backpacks for students and additional security.
Andrea Hogg, the parent of an eighth grader in the district, asked the school board about their new initiatives.
“Metal detectors are a great idea. But do we have the manpower for someone to watch these metal detectors?” Hogg asked. “We already have a teacher shortage and a bus driver shortage. So who’s gonna watch the metal detectors?”
She continued, “Teachers need to feel safe going to work. They need to know that they have the support of the parents, their faculty, staff, their administration, everyone.”
Sypolt said her son was traumatized by the situation at his elementary school.
“I’m taking off work, my husband’s taking off of work and I’m one of the lucky families here to have family nearby to help take care of my kid because everyone failed this teacher,” she said. “You guys failed her on a multitude of levels.”
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