Where Was the Blame for What We Have Accepted as Community Values?
As you may have heard, two weeks ago, a six-year-old boy brought a gun to Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., and, without warning, shot the first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner once in the hand and stomach.
The teacher is recuperating, after having ushered her other charges out of the classroom. According to police, her first utterance after treatment was about the well-being of her students. She Is a hero, and lucky to be alive.
The school has not been open since the shooting.
There was an angry public hearing at the school board this week, the first. Parents filled the meeting hall with emotional voices to demand that the schools do more to stop a repeat and to guarantee the safety of their students.
The public anger went on for three hours. From all accounts – here’s one – the anger was unstopping even as school officials talked about the steps they were taking, and there was only one villain in the comments: the school system itself and any “grace” it was showing to students exhibiting bad behavior. As Newport News police tell it, the boy’s mother legally purchased the gun but that remained unclear how her son gained access to it. Community reaction shifted to anger last week after the superintendent acknowledged that school 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.
The parents were disdainful of newly ordered metal detectors, the proposed hiring of additional security and behavioral counseling staff and a variety of student conduct codes – four pages of outlined changes. What came through as a message was to blame the school officials for not sufficiently backing teachers and enabling them to be much sterner disciplinarians in class.
It is predictable that parents would move immediately to blame and to put the school system in the dock. And that discerning the best answer to a loaded gun being shot is within the purview of a superintendent or principal who assigns a half-hour of detention for violating hall permit policy.
What I did not see in the various news reports was public anger towards a fellow parent who somehow allowed a 6-year-old to take a loaded gun to school. Where was the argument that we need parental training rather than student codes of conduct? Where is the demand that parents need to sign a pledge to keep weapons locked up for their students to attend Richneck? Where is the consideration of what we are teaching our children with our adorations of guns and violence that would prompt a six-year-old to bring a loaded pistol to class to settle a gripe with his teacher?
Where was the Blame for what we have accepted as community values?
What I did not hear was anger towards a Congress, state legislature and gun lobbies to resist laws that would dare to require safety features for handguns, to say nothing of the larger questions about why we need more guns than people in this country.
The fate of the boy himself and the parent is not public, and now governed by the juvenile justice system. Virginia law prohibits leaving a loaded gun where it is accessible to a child under 14, a misdemeanor crime punishable with a maximum one-year prison sentence and $2,500 fine. No charges have been brought against the mother so far. In a statement yesterday, the family said that they have been cooperating with police, that the gun had been “secured.” The family said the boy had been undergoing treatment that until the week of the shooting had included having one parent with him in school.
At the hearing, teachers and parents said students who assault classmates and staff are routinely allowed to stay in the classroom with few consequences., The Associated Press reported from the hearing. They said the shooting could have been prevented if not for a toxic environment in which teachers’ concerns are systemically ignored. Here was high school librarian Nicole Cooke: “Every day in every one of our schools, teachers, students and other staff members are being hurt. Every day, they’re hit. They’re bitten. They’re beaten. And they’re allowed to stay so that our numbers look good.”
That shouldn’t happen, of course, and the school system needs to deal with a rising perception of “lawlessness” among students. But why aren’t we focused here on the specific threat of a 6-year-old firing a deadly weapon at his teacher? For that matter, where is parental responsibility for bad behavior altogether?
Guns Survive Defenses
It’s been a bad week for gun violence, with a losing Republican politician in New Mexico arrested in connection with organizing shootings into the homes of four local Democratic officeholders.
In Indiana, a man was arrested after his 4-year-old son was seen playing with a gun in doorbell camera footage that was broadcast on live television. The footage showed a child in a diaper waving a gun in an apartment hallway. The child appeared to pull the gun’s trigger several times, though the gun did not discharge.
Six people, including a 17-year-old mother and her 6-month-old baby, were killed in a shooting at a home in central California in what police said was a targeted attack.
School violence continues, as we all know too well. In Newport News, there were two other shootings in the last 18 months. In September 2021, two 17-year-olds were wounded when a 15-year-old fired shots in a crowded high school hallway after a fight with one of the students. Two months later, an 18-year-old student fatally shot a 17-year-old in the parking lot of a different high school after a football game.
This is not the place to argue the proliferation of gun violence. And neither involved a six-year-old shooter.
Beyond the school metal detectors, the changes in Newport News, a racially diverse city of about 185,000,include Scheduling division-wide school safety breaks to allow for teachers and school administrators to discuss building safety, and consider adding security staff, random searches and hiring behavioral specialists on staff.
It is a response that parents are finding inadequate. They want guarantees about student safety. But the best equipped school won’t change parental behavior that allows access to a loaded gun that somehow goes to a first grader. Parental responsibility bears some burden.