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Metal detector to be installed at Virginia school where 6-year-old shot teacher

"The time is now to put metal detectors in all of our schools," said the chair of the Newport News School Board.

When students return to the Virginia school where a 6-year-old shot a first-grade teacher, the campus will be outfitted with a metal detector.

The Newport News Public Schools district announced Thursday that a detector will be installed at Richneck Elementary School, where Abigail Zwerner was shot as she was teaching.

The school, which has been closed since the shooting Friday, will reopen with a metal detector, school board Chair Lisa R. Surles-Law said.

"Metal detectors are going to start at Richneck so we can get those students in the building," Surles-Law said.

A return date has not been determined, a spokesperson for the district said.

Surles-Law also said officials found funding to add for metal detectors throughout the district.

"The 90 state-of-the-art metal detectors are going in each and every school in our district, and some of them will have more than one," she said.

She did not disclose the cost of the detectors or a timeline for installation.

More on the Virginia teacher's shooting

No students were injured, and the 6-year-old was taken into custody Friday.

A court-ordered temporary detention order was placed on the child, who is “currently receiving treatment at a medical facility,” officials have said.

Authorities declined Thursday to disclose any additional details about the shooting, citing the investigation.

District Superintendent George Parker III said this week that student and staff safety was his top priority.

“My board members know how I feel about making our schools look anything like a prison,” he said. But, he said, children will not be able to learn well if their safety is compromised.

“This incident right here will cause us to rethink how we handle our youngest children,” Parker has said. “It may warrant us to reconsider all metal detectors at all our buildings. At least that is one extra layer of support.”

Use of metal detectors rare at American schools

The use of metal detectors in schools, particularly elementary schools, is still rare, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

During the 2019-20 school year, less than 2% of public elementary schools performed random metal detector checks on students. The figures were 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 imposed the requirement, the center said. About 54.6% of elementary schools had security staffers present at least once a week; at middle schools, it was 81.5% and at high schools 84.4%.

Police tape hangs from a sign post outside Richneck Elementary School following a shooting on Jan. 7, 2023, in Newport News, Va.
Police tape hangs from a signpost outside Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., on Saturday after a shooting.Jay Paul / Getty Images

'I believe she did save lives'

Zwerner was struck by gunfire and wounded in a hand and her chest when the child pointed a 9 mm Taurus firearm at her during class, officials said this week.

She was hailed as a hero for escorting her students to safety after she was injured.

The bullet went through Zwerner’s hand and into her upper chest, “but she was still able to get all of her students out of that classroom,” Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said Monday.

“She made ... sure that every one of those students was safe.

“I believe she did save lives, because I don’t know what else might have happened if those kids would have stayed in that room.”

'Your school family misses you immensely'

On Thursday, Surles-Law said Zwerner's condition was "improving every day."

"Your school family misses you immensely," Surles-Law said.

Zwerner comes from a family of educators, including her mother, Julie; her twin sister, Hannah; and an aunt. She graduated from James Madison University in Virginia and began teaching during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2020, her father, John, a veteran Newport News firefighter and paramedic, died unexpectedly at home.

Through her personal challenges, Zwerner’s passion for teaching grew, a source close to the situation said, and she often worked through the evenings and on weekends.

“Her heart is there,” the source said. “These are her children.”

The shooting has raised questions among school parents, staff members and union leaders about the need for increased security and whether Zwerner had flagged previous issues or warnings about the student.

If she had, “that is something that we hope to find out,” said James Graves, the president of the Newport News Education Association, the teachers union.

He added that metal detectors won't solve the problem of school shootings alone: “We also have to deal with behavior. Then we wouldn’t need metal detectors.”

Taunya Pace, a cafeteria monitor at Richneck for two years, said she would have never imagined that the school would need metal detectors or extra security.

“I’m coming here from Texas, where a lot of the schools have metal detectors,” Pace said. “Maybe in the high school, you could believe this could happen, but not here.”

She said she believes counseling for students is a helpful tool to better understand “what’s in their heads and their hearts."

Will student or parents be charged?

Experts say that the child is unlikely to be charged but that his parents could be criminally culpable depending on whether they properly secured the weapon.

The student’s mother bought the gun used in the shooting legally, according to Newport News police. Officials haven’t specified how the boy got hold of it. 

Virginia, unlike Massachusetts and Oregon, doesn’t have a law that specifies how to secure guns in a home, said Allison Anderman, senior counsel and the director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

The Virginia law says “you can’t leave a loaded firearm unsecured in a matter that would endanger the life and limb of a child under the age of 14,” Anderman said. “And your behavior can’t be reckless. If you were reasonable in how you stored your firearm, even if a minor under the age of 14 got a hold of it, you may not be liable.”