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School Searched 6-Year-Old’s Backpack Before Newport News Shooting, Officials Say

On the day that a first-grade teacher was shot in her classroom last week, a school employee, acting on a tip, searched the backpack of a 6-year-old boy to check for a gun, according to district officials in Newport News, Va.

No weapon was found, school district officials said, even as the police have accused the child of shooting his teacher at Richneck Elementary School later that afternoon.

The news that an employee had searched the backpack raised questions about the adequacy of the school’s response, in a case that has already drawn significant attention because of the child’s young age, which has brought a new level of concern to the charged debate over guns and school safety.

The district superintendent first shared the information at a virtual meeting on Thursday for parents, which was reported by WAVY-TV, a local television station.

“At least one administrator was notified of a possible weapon,” the superintendent told parents, according to WAVY-TV.

A spokeswoman for the Newport News public school district, Michelle Price, confirmed on Friday that the child’s backpack had been searched by a staff member “after it was reported that the student may have a weapon.”

But the tip was not relayed to the Newport News Police Department before the shooting, the police said in a statement on Friday.

Gun Violence in America

  • In New York: The U.S. Supreme Court let stand, for now, a state law that placed strict limits on carrying guns outside the home. The measure was enacted in response to a ruling by the court in June that struck down a restrictive gun control law.
  • Newport News School Shooting: A 6-year-old boy at an elementary school shot his teacher with a gun that was legally purchased by the child’s mother.
  • In New Jersey: A federal judge blocked a central component of a new state law limiting guns in public, undercutting an effort to create gun-free zones where crowds gather.
  • Permissive Gun Laws: A man went into a Georgia supermarket in 2021 with body armor and loaded guns, creating a panic. But were his actions against the law?

Much is still unknown about the timeline of events on Jan. 6, and what exactly happened between the boy’s arrival at school and the shooting around 2 p.m. It is unclear who notified the employee, what information was available or what kind of search was conducted.

At a news conference on Monday, the police said the boy had retrieved the handgun — legally purchased by his mother — from home, put it in his backpack and brought it to school.

Abigail Zwerner, the teacher, was in the middle of a routine lesson in her first-grade classroom when, the authorities said, the boy suddenly pulled out the gun and aimed it at her.

At the time of the shooting, “the firearm was displayed from his person, not from his backpack,” said Steve Drew, the chief of police in Newport News.

A single bullet pierced Ms. Zwerner, 25, who was seriously injured but has been recovering at a hospital. Virginia law prohibits leaving a loaded gun where it is accessible to children under 14, but in contrast to some other states, such as Oregon and Massachusetts, there is not a broad law that requires all guns to be safely stored in homes.

Mark Anthony Garcia Sr., 38, the father of a second grader at Richneck Elementary, said that his “heart fell” during the virtual meeting on Thursday night when the superintendent said the school had been aware of a possible weapon in the building. According to Mr. Garcia, the superintendent said that the child’s backpack had been searched when the child arrived at school around 11:30 a.m., about two and a half hours before the shooting.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions here and missed opportunities for safety for all — not just students, for everyone in that building,” he said.

As in many other school shootings, the case has renewed conversation around children’s mental health and school security. Schools have also come under scrutiny for their responses before attacks, such as in the 2021 shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan. In that case, a student, Ethan Crumbley, pleaded guilty to killing four students and injuring seven other people. After a teacher observed violent drawings in class, and his parents declined to take him home, he remained in school. His belongings were not searched.

School officials in Newport News have quickly moved to install metal detectors at all school buildings, a strategy that has stirred debate but has also grown more popular as school shootings have become more common.

Six percent of public schools reported using metal detectors for all or most students on a daily basis, according to a recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, up from 2 percent in the 2017-18 school year. Nine percent of public schools reported random metal detector use, up from 5 percent five years ago. The growth comes as other security measures — such as panic buttons and locked classroom doors — have also become more common.

“Metal detectors are just one strategy,” said James Fedderman, the president of the Virginia Education Association, the state’s teachers union. He pointed to other tactics, such as locking doors and installing security cameras, and urged a focus on mental health and conflict resolution.

Experts say that the best time to stop a shooting on school grounds is before a gun ever makes its way to campus, such as by intervening with any students who show early signs of distress or violence.

Metal detectors and some other surveillance strategies have drawn criticism for not reliably preventing shootings, while also negatively affecting students of color. Nationally, the devices are more likely to be used in schools with a high percentage of nonwhite students. As of the 2017-18 school year, Newport News Public Schools served about 28,000 students, more than half of them Black and nearly a quarter of them white, with smaller shares of Hispanic and Asian students.

“I hate to be at this point where I’m considering this,” George Parker III, the superintendent of Newport News Public Schools, said at the Monday news conference, adding, “My board members know how I feel about making our schools look anything like a prison.”

But, he said, “if we can’t maintain safety, or at least get to the point where we can have an effective and safe school day, kids won’t learn anyway.”

Mr. Garcia said that he supported the use of metal detectors in schools but that he also wanted to see other security measures in place, including clear backpacks and more security guards.

His 8-year-old son is too young to fully understand what happened at his school, he said, and wants to see his friends again.

“But he tells me, ‘Dad, I’m not sure if I’m ready to go back to that school,’” he said. “And I told him the only thing we can do in this situation is try. You have to make the attempt to let them fix the problem.”

Campbell Robertson contributed reporting.

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