As gun violence continues to worsen, now a six-year-old boy has shot his teacher in the chest in Newport News, VA, one of the most populous cities in the state.
In Richneck Elementary School, on January 6, 2023, Abigail Zwerner was teaching when warnings came from other teachers about an alleged gun in the student’s possession. At first, another teacher requested that the boy be searched out of suspicion that he carried a gun, which was followed by a search of his backpack. Though nothing was found, the teacher was under the impression that the boy had put the gun in his pocket, but administrators ignored her concerns since he “has little pockets.” Later that day, a student came to a teacher crying that the six-year-old had shown him the gun during their recess period and threatened to shoot the boy if he reported it to anyone.
While teaching staff warned school administrators of the incident, administrators advised teachers not to search the boy since the school day was nearing its end. But at 2 pm, the boy pointed the gun at Zwerner and fired at her chest.
After the incident, Zwerner underwent a long journey of recovery. In a recent interview with AP News on March 21, Zwerner revealed details about her 2-week-long hospitalization. In that time, Zwerner received four surgeries on her hand, which she put up as a defense response before being shot, and her lung, which she later found had collapsed. She now experiences nightmares and vivid memories of the incident.
Zwerner intends to file a lawsuit with her lawyer, Diane Toscano, against the school district for negligence, as motioned by a legal notice filed by Toscano. Authorities say the boy took the gun from his mother and brought it to Richneck Elementary School, where concerns were ignored by administrators, leading to the shooting of Zwerner in the chest.
Parents, teachers, and citizens all over the country are wondering why administrators ignored not just one but three pleas from teachers and did not call the police nor make any move to search or confront the boy. In the three-hour live-streamed board meeting following the incident, the comment section revealed the toxic environment that teachers in the school district undergo on a regular basis. Teachers are hurt on a daily basis, while students remain unpunished.
“Every day, they’re hit. They’re bitten. They’re beaten. And they’re allowed to stay so that our numbers look good,” said Nicole Cooke, high school librarian.
Amber Thomas, a former school psychologist, told the board that the shooting was “completely preventable- if the red flags had been taken seriously and proper procedures clearly communicated and followed.” Thomas also revealed a time when a teacher was assaulted by a student, and the student “faced no disciplinary action at all.”
In response to the public comments, the school board released the following statement: “We listened intently, and we are reflecting on each speaker’s comments. We know our community wants action, and we are determined to follow up on the recommendations and concerns we heard.” As a result of the incident and the continuously ignored concerns of teachers by administrators, the school board also voted to terminate Superintendent Dr. George Parker III.
In the aftermath of the attack, parents and teachers all over the country have drawn concern to the decreasing use of suspensions and expulsions as a means of punishment and deterring. Stanford law professor William Koski explains the trend away from suspensions and toward a “happy medium” as administrations across the country grow more concerned that suspensions are “feeding the school-to-prison pipeline and disproportionately affecting Black students.” While based on fact, school districts are yet to find this “happy medium” they search for that will deter students from continued misbehavior through teaching.
Restorative justice “focuses on mediation and agreement rather than punishment.” The concept highlights prevention–rather than simply kicking them out of the classroom. Restorative justice cements the importance of teaching students why their actions are wrong through community-building efforts and intervention. For example, if a student violates school policy, the situation is mediated in a cooperative and professional environment and offers reintegration, as well as academic, emotional, and peer support.
Issues with the Newport News school district’s restorative justice efforts were highlighted, specifically their lack of restoration and mediation. In a culture where students can assault their teachers without punishment or consequences, wrongdoing will see no decrease. And students must grow up with the core values of respect, kindness, and restraint.
Unfortunately, the Newport News school district is no stranger to gun violence. In September and November 2021, there were two incidents involving gun violence, in which two students were wounded and one was killed in two separate high schools in the area. William Fenker, an eighth-grade science teacher, described how “our students do not wonder if there will be another school shooting; they wonder when and where the next shooting will be.”
The attack has raised much alarm about increasing gun violence in schools all across the United States. In 2023 so far, there have been 40 school-related gun violence incidents. Gun violence in schools has seen anincreasesince 2021, from 114 in 2020 to 250 in 2021 and even higher to 303 in 2022. This incident and many more highlight the issue of gun violence in the United States. If not for restorative justice, school administrators must find a “happy medium” that balances both punishment and learning. We, as a society, must start offering victims like Zwerner more than just prayers. And most importantly, we must discover the deep-rooted problems that drive a six-year-old boy to shoot his teacher.