NEWPORT NEWS, VA. – The shooting of a 6-year-old boy by a first-grade teacher has plunged the nation into uncharted waters of school violence, and many in the Virginia shipyard town where it happened are calling for metal detectors in every school.
But experts warn there are no easy solutions when it comes to preventing gun violence in schools.
“It’s really a game changer,” said Moe Kennedy, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which trains law enforcement officers who work in schools.
“How do we begin to approach the idea of protecting students and staff from an armed 6-year-old?” he said of Friday’s attack in Newport News.
American educators have long attempted to create safe spaces that look less like prisons and more like schools. In any case, Friday’s shooting is fueling a debate over the effectiveness of metal detectors — which are still relatively rare in schools — and other security measures.
“Metal detectors and transparent backpacks are more likely to cause fear and guilt in young children,” said Amanda Nickerson, a professor of school psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
“Many of the strategies proposed have no research evidence and can actually undermine a healthy school climate,” she said — one in which students and staff feel free to share concerns about potential threats, which has been shown to prevent shootings.
A more effective approach promotes “positive social, emotional, behavioral and academic success,” Nickerson said.
Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare and education at the University of California, Los Angeles, said “it’s really the gun owners who have to be held accountable.”
Newport News police say a 6-year-old boy brought his mother’s legally purchased gun to school, though it’s unclear how he got access to it. Virginia law prohibits leaving loaded firearms in places accessible to children under the age of 14. a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of one year and a fine of $2,500. The mother has not yet been charged.
Astor said a public health approach is needed to reduce gun violence in schools, as well as gun licensing.
“Let’s all agree that gun education is really important, especially when it comes to gun safety and gun accidents and children’s access to guns,” Astor said. “Let’s make it part of the health lesson. Let’s make sure that every child, parent and teacher receives hazardous materials safety education and training in every school in the United States.”
“Gun safety education … is something most Americans agree with based on national polls. It’s a great place to start saving lives and reducing injuries and deaths,” Astor said.
The shooting happened Friday while Abigail Zwerner was teaching her first grade class at Richneck Elementary School. There was no warning or struggle before the 6-year-old pointed the gun at Zwerner and fired once.
The bullet pierced Zwerner’s arm and entered his chest. The 25-year-old kicked her students out of the classroom before she was rushed to hospital. Her condition had improved Monday and she is in stable condition, authorities said.
Police Chief Steve Drew called the shooting “intentional.” The judge will determine what to do next with the child who is in a medical facility under the emergency care order.
Meanwhile, the superintendent of Newport News Public Schools said the shooting “will force us to reevaluate how we treat our youngest children.”
City schools rely on metal detectors and random searches at middle and high schools, but not for elementary buildings, Superintendent George Parker III said at a news conference Monday.
“I hate to be at the point where I’m looking at this, but we have to start relying on these kinds of deterrents at the elemental level as well,” Parker said.
James Graves, president of the Newport News Education Association, said the teachers union will ask the school board to install metal detectors in every school.
“If a metal detector in every school is going to keep our kids safe, so be it,” he told the Associated Press.
The union is also proposing that students be required to wear only clear backpacks so their contents are easily visible, Graves said.
Eric Billet, whose three children attend Newport News Public Schools, said he supports more security measures, such as metal detectors, bag searches and a security officer at every school. But he would also like more behavior specialists and counselors working with students.
Two of Billet’s children attend Richneck, including his daughter, a fourth-grader who has had nightmares since the shooting.
“The more difficult part is changing the culture,” he said.
“I know some teachers are having trouble managing their classrooms after COVID,” Billet added. “I don’t know all the reasons, whether it is upbringing at home, or other influences, or the lack of authority and discipline at school. I definitely don’t blame the teachers for that.”
Rick Fogle, whose grandson is in second grade at Richneck High School, supports the increased use of metal detectors. But he also said schools should be more willing to search backpacks, pockets and desks if children are suspected of having weapons.
“They have to overcome the social pressure to respect people’s rights and realize that the rights of those who may be harmed must be taken into account,” Fogle said.
Researcher David Readman, Founder database tracking US school shootings since 1970said that he only knows three other shootings involving 6-year-olds in that time period — and only one other incident student younger than that.
At the same time, people are being shot or guns taken away from schools almost every day, Ridman said. Last year, there were 302 shootings on school grounds. Since 1970, more than 250 teachers, principals and other school workers have been shot.
However, he questioned how realistic it is for schools to increase the use of metal detectors.
“Schools are already struggling with the resources they need — finding bus drivers, finding enough teachers,” Reedman said. “To have comprehensive school security with 100% gun detection essentially requires a TSA-style agency that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to implement nationwide. And this is unsustainable.”
The use of metal detectors in schools, especially primary schools, is still rare, according to the data of the Republican Center for Education Statistics.
In the 2019-2020 school year, less than 2% of public elementary schools conducted random metal detector checks of students. It was 10% for secondary schools, 14.8% for secondary schools.
About 2% of elementary schools required backpacks to be transparent 9% of secondary schools and 7% of secondary schools made such a requirement, – said in the center. About 54.6% of primary schools were attended by security guards at least once a week; in secondary schools – 81.5%, in gymnasiums – 84.4%.
Canady said equipping schools with metal detectors requires a lot of training and maintenance — and can create a false sense of security if they’re not working properly.
He said a relationship-based policing approach can better help prevent school violence. “Every student in the school environment should have at least one adult they can trust and connect with,” Kennedy said.
Krista Arnold, executive director of the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, agreed. She served as an elementary school principal for 18 years in Virginia Beach before retiring in 2021.
“In 18 years, I’ve had a couple of knives brought to school, and (students) usually sing like canaries and tell somebody,” Arnold said. “And it usually went to the front office pretty quickly.”
Arnold said she is not a fan of turning schools into fortresses. Instead, it supports teaching empathy and other behavioral skills.
“My experience is that when you create that community and openly teach social, emotional skills — and you talk about how the other person feels when you’ve hurt them … you build that good citizenship and you reduce the amount of discipline and aggression in school.” , she said.
Lavoie reported from Richmond, Virginia.
Copyright 2023 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, copied or distributed without permission.