While the investigation into the Jan. 6 shooting at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News continues, allegations against the school division allege an escalating pattern of disruptive behavior before the 6-year-old shot 25-year-old first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner.
Why these complaints were not handled remains a matter of dispute. However, what’s clear is that school divisions should use this incident to review policies related to disruptive students, ensure complaints are handled urgently and teachers are supported, and work to make sure that children in crisis receive the services they need.
The Jan. 6 shooting shocked this community and the nation, and there are numerous questions surrounding it that demand answers. Most prominently, were school officials slow to respond to concerns expressed by Zwerner that the child in question was a threat to her safety and that of those students, teachers and staff?
People are also reading…
According to a complaint obtained by the Daily Press through the Freedom of Information Act, that certainly appears to be the case.
The “notice of claim” filed by Zwerner’s lawyer on Jan. 24 sets forth a timeline of events leading up to Jan. 6, including the stunning allegation that Richneck Assistant Principal Ebony Parker was alerted three times to the possibility that the boy had brought a gun to school but failed to act on that information.
The notices claimed Zwerner expressed concern to school administration about the boy’s behavior that day, that two other teachers were told the boy had a gun at school — and one searched the boy’s backpack — only to have school administrators dismiss those worries, and that a fourth teacher and a guidance counselor urged a more thorough search for a weapon, only to have their pleas declined.
There is more, including worries throughout the year that the boy had violent tendencies and needed specialized help and that fears the boy had a weapon on Jan. 6 were not elevated to the principal or to Newport News police.
A recent story in the Washington Post offers additional details, including that two second-grade classes were left to wander the Richneck halls after the shooting because their shared classrooms did not have doors and they had not practiced safety drills.
It’s important to remember here that the notice of claim is a court filing spelling out the basis for a civil case and was filed by Zwerner’s attorney. It isn’t the complete story, only one version of it.
That said, it does offer a frightening and infuriating accounting of events in which there were numerous opportunities to prevent this violence, all of which were squandered. And it suggests that what happened at Richneck bears similarities with other notable tragedies — lines of communication broken, warnings ignored, the absence of needed equipment, poorly designed protocols, and the overwhelming sense that surely the worst wouldn’t happen here.
Educators already have a hard enough time in their classrooms. Teaching classes of unique individuals, each of whom responds differently to motivation and stimulus and who come to school with their own set of problems, is a tremendous challenge.
That is why they must be supported at every turn. It’s why schools must have policies in place to help them handle a child headed toward crisis before it happens. And it’s why they must be listened to, especially when they know students so well from working with them.
Virginia needs to fund mental health programs to ensure students receive the care they need. And it must invest in education, raising teacher pay and ensuring school buildings are the best they can be.
But individual districts should take this moment to review how complaints are handled and confirm those policies are timely and effective. There should be no further evidence needed about the cost of inaction and the potential harm that can result from poor communication between teachers and administrators.