Teacher shot dead by 6-year-old known to be devoted to students

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Virginia teacher who authorities say was shot by a 6-year-old student is known as a hard-working educator who is dedicated to her students and enthusiastic about the profession that runs in her family, according to fellow teachers and city officials.

John Ely III, a former Newport News school board member, identified the first-grade teacher as Abby Zwerner, 25. Zwerner was shot Friday at Richneck Elementary School, authorities said.

Shortly after the shooting, police said Zwerner had life-threatening injuries, but her condition had improved and she was in stable condition at a local hospital.

Ely and other city officials met with teachers and the school’s principal Friday and later went to the hospital where they met Zwerner’s family members, including several aunts who are also teachers.

“The whole family was an educator and said she was excited to do the work,” said Ellie, who was recently elected to the Newport News City Council.

“Guardians and other teachers talked about how she’s a good teammate, a team player, she loves her kids, she’s just a good teacher.”

Cindy Hurst said her granddaughter, 8, is still shaken by the shooting. She was in Zwerner’s class last year and told her grandmother that he was a great teacher.

“I just hate that it happened,” Hurst said The Virginian-Pilot. “But life as we know it may never be the same – I don’t know.”

Zwerner attended James Madison University, graduating in 2019 with a BA in Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies and minors in Elementary Education and Music. She graduated from JMU’s College of Education in 2020 with a master’s degree in education.

JMU President Jonathan Alger issued a message of support for Zwerner, her family, friends and fellow teachers, students and their families.

“JMU stands ready to support those affected by this incident now and in the coming weeks,” Alger tweeted Saturday.

Police Chief Steve Drew said the boy shot and wounded the teacher with a handgun in a first-grade classroom. He was later taken into police custody. Drew said the shooting was not random and was part of an argument. No students were injured.

Police declined to describe what led to the altercation or any other details about what happened in the classroom, citing the ongoing investigation. They also declined to say how the boy got access to the weapon or who owned the weapon.

Virginia law prevents 6-year-olds from being tried as adults. In addition, a 6-year-old child is too young to be placed in the custody of the Department of Youth Justice if convicted.

However, a juvenile judge would have the authority to revoke a parent’s custody and place the child under the control of the Department of Human Services.

Mayor Philip Jones did not say where the boy was being held.

“We’re making sure he has all the services he needs right now,” Jones said Saturday.

Experts who study gun violence said the shooting represented an extremely rare case of a young child bringing a gun to school and wounding a teacher.

“It’s very rare, and it’s not something that the legal system is really designed or positioned to deal with,” said researcher David Ridman, founder of a database that tracks U.S. school shootings since the 1970s.

He said Saturday that he knew of only three other shootings by 6-year-old students during the period he studied. They include the fatal shooting of a fellow student in 2000 in Michigan and shootings that injured other students in 2011 in Texas and 2021 in Mississippi.

Reedman said he knows of only one other case of a student younger than this causing a school shooting, in which a 5-year-old student brought a gun to a school in Tennessee in 2013 and accidentally fired it. No one was injured in this case.

Newport News is a city of about 185,000 in southeastern Virginia known for its shipyard, which builds the nation’s aircraft carriers and other vessels for the United States Navy.

Richneck has about 550 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, according to the Virginia Department of Education website. Jones said there will be no classes at the school on Monday and Tuesday.

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