A troubled 6-year-old boy who shot his first-grade teacher in the chest as she taught her class at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, allegedly told another teacher prior to the shooting that he hated her so much he wanted to set her on fire and watch her die.
Abigail Zwerner, the 25-year-old teacher who was shot on Jan. 6 by the student also repeatedly begged school administrators for help with the boy but her complaints fell on deaf ears up until the shooting, according to The Washington Post.
Newport News resident Valerie McCandless, 52, who told the publication she sent six children to Richneck, said she was troubled by the news that there were prior complaints about the student yet administrators failed to act.
“I don’t think the teachers there are getting support, they’re not getting compassion, they’re not getting answers, they’re not getting listened to,” McCandless said. “This (the shooting) was, I believe, God’s way of saying somebody needs to listen to them.”
According to screenshots of a conversation held online between school employees and George Parker III, the school system’s superintendent, and seen by The Washington Post, Zwerner had asked for help with the student during the school year before he shot her.
“She had asked for help,” one staffer wrote.
A separate message by a Richneck teacher that was obtained by The Washington Post from the Newport News Education Association alleges that school administrators waved away concerns about the 6-year-old’s earlier conduct.
The Washington Post obtained the message on the condition the teacher’s identity not be revealed because the union feared she would face retaliation. The teacher declined interview requests through the union, citing worries of professional consequences and a directive from Newport News schools not to talk to the media about the shooting.
In one account the boy wrote a note to a teacher expressing his desire to set her on fire and watch her die, but when she reported his behavior she was allegedly told to drop the issue by administrators. On different occasions, the boy is accused of threatening classmates by throwing furniture and barricading himself inside a classroom once while preventing a teacher and another student from leaving.
The barricaded teacher was rescued by another teacher from across the hall who forced the door open from the outside after she banged on it for help.
School administrators did not independently verify the accounts about the boy’s troubling behavior prior to the shooting but Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew told The Washington Post that detectives would look into them.
James Graves, president of the Newport News Education Association, also told the publication that the union is also looking into the concerns about teacher safety in the aftermath of the shooting.
“We want to know what happened so we can protect our members,” Graves said. “They believe and they know the administration should take their concerns more seriously than they did. This could have been prevented.”
Parker previously said in a Jan. 12 virtual town hall that the boy arrived at school late on the day of the shooting and his book bag was inspected and flagged for a “possible weapon.”
Parent Thomas Britton told The Washington Post that the boy should have been removed from class until a thorough investigation was conducted.
“That was a shocking revelation that not only did he bring the weapon, but somebody gave a tip he had the weapon,” Britton told The Washington Post. “It seems to me it would be completely avoidable at that point.”
Since the shooting, a new administrator has been assigned and Parker said the district is purchasing 90 metal detectors to install at all Newport News schools as well as clear backpacks to hand out to students.
“We listened and we continue to work to improve current systems and processes to help better manage extreme behaviors that adversely affect the culture and climate in schools,” Parker said in a note to staff on Jan. 17.
Children younger than 7 are presumed unable to form the intent to carry out an illegal act under Virginia law, but someone could be charged for failing to secure the gun used in the shooting Drew said.
It was unclear how the boy gained access to the gun that was secured with a trigger lock and kept on the top shelf of the mother’s bedroom closet. In a statement through attorney James Ellenson, the boy’s family said they were praying for Zwerner, who was recently released from a local hospital and care for their son who has an "acute disability."
“Our son suffers from an acute disability and was under a care plan at the school that included his mother or father attending school with him and accompanying him to class every day. Additionally, our son has benefitted from an extensive community of care that also includes his grandparents working alongside us and other caregivers to ensure his needs and accommodations are met. The week of the shooting was the first week when we were not in class with him. We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives,” they said.
“We continue to pray for his teacher’s full recovery, and for her loved ones who are undoubtedly upset and concerned. At the same time, we love our son and are asking that you please include him and our family in your prayers.”