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Questions remain in shooting of Virginia teacher by 6-year-old student

A 6-year-old first-grader at an elementary school in Newport News, Virginia, shot a teacher during an altercation in a classroom.
Posted at 9:11 PM, Jan 10, 2023

Questions continue to swirl around the tragic shooting of a teacher in Newport News, Virginia, by a 6-year-old student.  

"I don’t know what was going through that child’s mind. He’s 6 years old. He displayed a firearm, he pointed it, he fires one round," said Steve Drew, Newport News police chief.  

Abby Zwerner was shot through her hand and the bullet landed in her chest. She’s currently in stable condition at a local hospital.  

During a vigil in her honor, her fellow teachers called her a hero.  

"She's thoughtful, she’s caring and one of the most amazing teachers I’ve had the pleasure to interact with," said Lauren Palladini, the school counselor at Richneck Elementary.  

The student who brought the gun to school and fired it in class is being held at a medical facility under an emergency custody and temporary detention order. And while the authorities have said this shooting was "not accidental," that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be prosecuted as a crime.  

Julie McConnellis a lawyer and the director of the Children’s Defense Clinic at the University of Richmond.  

"This really isn't a criminal matter. This is a matter of what would be in the best interest of this child," McConnell said. 

McConnell says for anyone to stand trial, they must be capable of forming criminal intent but the law generally recognizes that ability at 7 years old.  

Police: Child Who Shot Virginia Teacher Brought Handgun From Home

Police: Child Who Shot Virginia Teacher Brought Handgun From Home

Police determined the handgun the 6-year-old suspect allegedly used was in the residence where he lived and legally purchased by the suspect's mother.

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"That means the child has to understand the nature of the proceedings, be able to assist his lawyer in pursuing the case, understand the role of a judge and a prosecutor understand his own rights. Those are complex legal factors that a 6-year-old just would never be able to understand," McConnell said. 

Police say the firearm used in the shooting was legally purchased by the student’s mother and criminal charges against her are "certainly a possibility." 

"We need to check with child protective services on any history. We need to check with the school system on any behavioral issues they might have and put those together," Drew said. 

In Virginia it is illegal to "recklessly leave a loaded, unsecured firearm" within the reach of a child under 14, but McConnell believes if the parents are prosecuted, it will more than likely be for criminal negligence.  

"That's only a misdemeanor statute. So that may not be what the prosecutor would be most inclined to pursue they would most likely look at the felony negligence statute," McConnell. 

The shooting at Richneck Elementary is one of seven times a firearm has been discharged on school properties in the U.S. this year. There were 302 last year, including the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 elementary school kids and two teachers dead.  

According to a database that tracks shootings at K-12 schools, there have been three other shootings involving a 6-year-old since 1970 — including the fatal shooting of a 6-year-old girl by her classmate in Michigan.