NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (TBEN) — The shooting of a first-grade teacher by a 6-year-old boy has plunged the nation into uncharted waters of school violence, with many in the shipbuilding town of Virginia, where it happened, demanding metal detectors in every school.
But experts warn there are no easy fixes when it comes to preventing gun violence in schools.
“This is a real game changer,” said Mo Canady, 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 the attack Friday in the Newport News.
American educators have long been trying to create safe spaces that feel less like prisons and more like schools. If anything, Friday’s shooting sparked a debate about the effectiveness of metal detectors – which are still relatively rare in schools – and other security measures.
“Metal detectors and clear backpacks are more likely to make young children feel scared and criminalized,” said Amanda Nickerson, a professor of school psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
“Many of the strategies being proposed lack research evidence and may even compromise a healthy school climate,” she said — one where students and staff feel free to share their concerns about potential threats, which have 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 should be held accountable.”
Police in the Newport News say the 6-year-old brought his mother’s legally purchased gun to school, though it’s unclear how he got it. A law in Virginia prohibits leaving a loaded gun where it is accessible to a child under 14, an offense punishable by up to one year in prison and a $2,500 fine. So far, no charges have been filed against the mother.
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 very important, especially around gun safety and accidents and children accessing guns,” Astor said. “Let’s make that part of the health lesson. Let’s make sure that every child, parent and educator in every school in the United States has hazardous materials education and safety training.”
“Gun safety education…is something most Americans agree on, based on national polls. That’s a great place to start saving lives and reducing injury or death,” Astor said.
The shooting happened on Friday as Abigail Zwerner was teaching her first grade at Richneck Elementary. There was no warning and no struggle before the 6-year-old turned the gun on Zwerner and fired one shot.
The bullet pierced Zwerner’s hand and struck her chest. The 25-year-old pushed her students out of the classroom before being rushed to hospital. She has improved and was admitted in stable condition on Monday, authorities said.
Police Chief Steve Drew described the shooting as “intentional”. A judge will determine the next step for the child, who is being held in a medical facility following an emergency order.
Meanwhile, the Newport News Public Schools superintendent said the shooting “will make us rethink how we treat our youngest children.”
Not in primary education
City schools rely on metal detectors and random searches on middle and high schools, but not for elementary buildings, Superintendent George Parker III said at a Monday news conference.
“I hate to be at this point where I’m considering this, but we need to start relying on those kinds of deterrents at an elementary level as well,” Parker said.
James Graves, president of the Newport News Education Association, said the teachers’ union would ask the school board for metal detectors in every school.
“If a metal detector in every school keeps our kids safe, then so be it,” he told The The Bharat Express News.
The union will also suggest that students only wear clear backpacks so that the contents are easy to see, 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 guard at each school. But he would also like to see more behavioral specialists and counselors working with students.
Two of Billet’s children go to Richneck’s, including his fourth-grade daughter who suffered nightmares after the shooting.
“The more challenging piece is the culture change,” he said.
“I know that some teachers have struggled to control classrooms since COVID,” Billet added. “I don’t know all the reasons, be it parenting at home or other influences, or a lack of authority and discipline at school. I certainly don’t blame the teachers for that.”
Rick Fogle, whose grandson is in Richneck’s second grade class, is in favor of 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 a gun.
“They have to overcome social pressures to respect people’s rights and realize that the rights of those who may be injured must be taken into account,” Fogle said.
Researcher David Riedman, founder of a database that tracks US school shootings from 1970, said he is only aware of three other shootings involving 6-year-olds during that time — and only one other case involving a student younger than that .
At the same time, people are shot or guns taken from schools almost every day, Riedman said. Last year there were 302 shootings on school grounds. And since 1970, more than 250 teachers, principals and other school personnel have been shot.
Still, he wondered how realistic it is for schools to increase the use of metal detectors.
“Schools are already struggling with enough resources — finding bus drivers, finding enough teachers,” Riedman said. “Having comprehensive school security with 100% weapon detection essentially requires a TSA-like agency that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to implement nationwide. And that is not viable.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the use of metal detectors in schools, especially elementary schools, is still rare.
During the 2019-2020 school year, less than 2% of public elementary schools conducted random metal detector checks on students. It was 10% for middle schools and 14.8% for high schools.
About 2% of elementary schools required backpacks to be clear, while just over 9% of middle schools and 7% of high schools enforced that requirement, the center said. Security personnel were present at about 54.6% of primary schools at least once a week; in secondary schools it was 81.5% and in secondary schools it was 84.4%.
Canady said equipping schools with metal detectors requires a lot of training and maintenance – and can give a false sense of security if not operated properly.
A relationship-based policing approach could better help prevent school violence, he said. “Every student in a school setting should have at least one trusted adult they can connect with,” Canady said.
Krista Arnold, executive director of the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, agreed. She worked as a primary school principal in Virginia Beach for 18 years before retiring in 2021.
“I brought a few knives to school when I was 18, and (the students) usually sing like canaries and tell someone,” Arnold said. “And that usually got to the front office pretty quickly.”
Arnold said she is not in favor of turning schools into fortresses. Instead, she supports learning empathy and other behavioral skills.
“My experience is when you build that community and you explicitly teach social, emotional skills _ and you talk about how the other person feels if you hurt them… you build that good citizenship and you reduce the amount of discipline and aggression at school,” she said.
Lavoie reported from Richmond, Virginia.
Photo: Willow Crawford, left, and her older sister Ava, right, join friend Kaylynn Vestre, center, to express support for Richneck Elementary School first grade teacher Abby Zwerner during a candlelight vigil in honor from her at the School Administration Building in Newport News, Va., Monday, January 9, 2023. Zwerner was shot and wounded by a 6-year-old student while teaching on Friday, January 6. (TBEN Photo/John C. Clark)
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