A 6-year-old shooting a teacher? Adults in charge failed everyone – USA TODAY

He is a 6-year-old child.

That boy who shot his teacher this month in front of his first-grade classmates at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia? He is 6 years old.

Do you remember when you were 6? Or maybe you recall loving a child who was that age. Maybe this is you now. You’re a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, a friend or neighbor – a teacher – who loves a 6-year-old child so much that you are willing to do anything to protect them from harm and to prepare them for the world.

Most of us know what it’s like to be 6 years old. You are completely dependent on the adults in your life who are supposed to love you and keep you safe. You have no say in where you live or who sleeps in the same home. You are not in control of your safety or your access to dangerous things. Your every day is determined by the adults who are in charge of you, and their level of commitment.

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Series of failures led up to shooting

Adults failed this 6-year-old boy.

Consider the timeline of the day of the shooting, as described by lawyer Diane Toscano, representing the 25-year-old teacher who was shot.

Abigail Zwerner, a first-grade teacher in Newport News, Va., was shot by a 6-year-old student on Jan. 6, 2023.

About 12:30 p.m., another teacher at the school told an administrator that, on an informed hunch, she had searched the child’s backpack for a gun. When she didn’t find it, she shared her belief that the gun was in his pocket.

The administrator reportedly dismissed her fear. The 6-year-old boy “has little pockets.”

Teacher raised the alarm 

Failure #1. A half-hour later, another teacher reported a child tearfully describing how the 6-year-old boy had brandished the gun and threatened to shoot the child if they said a word.

Still, the school official did nothing.

Failure #2. Word spread among teachers and staff, as of course it would, and a third employee reportedly asked an administrator for permission to search the boy.

The administrator’s alleged response: Wait it out. The school day was nearly over.

Failure #3. About 2 p.m., the 6-year-old child pulled out the gun that had been in his possession all along and shot his teacher in the chest, in the classroom. A 6-year-old girl, whose name is unknown because her mother insisted on protecting her, described the teacher falling to her knees.

Had someone searched this boy’s pockets, they could have stopped him.

Failure #4. Parents raced to the school, where officers separated them by their children’s grades. A mother of a fifth-grade girl said her daughter called her, crying. A 9-year-old boy said most of his classmates, who had been at recess at the time, were also crying.

Of course, they were.

Thursday morning, a friend of mine whose niece is a second-grade teacher home with COVID-19, shared a video from the diverse group of children in her classroom. One after another, they told their teacher they loved her, they missed her. “Stay safe,” one girl added. A boy pressed his palms together. “I’m praying for you,” he said. “Amen.”

This is what happens every year with millions of elementary-age children. They meet their teacher, and they fall in love. Imagine watching one of your classmates shoot her in the chest. Or knowing a fellow student was capable of this violence.

Trauma from violence infects another school

So, let’s stop with this kind of wording, reportedly uttered by police: “No students were injured in the shooting.” This is their trauma, too. Their grief. Perhaps for a lifetime.

Gun safety education:I was against gun safety classes in schools. The Newport News shooting changed my mind.

We’re not done with the list of failures. Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said the gun used by the 6-year-old boy was legally purchased by his mother. It was in his home, loaded and within reach of his little hands.

Failure #5. Adults in the school system who should have been responsible are now losing their jobs. OK, but now what?

A lot has been rightly reported and written about how teachers, who know students best, are too often ignored when they’re trying to keep them safe. This is not the first time, and it most certainly won’t be the last. What are we going to do about that? By we, I am hoping that means you, too.

I have repeatedly mentioned the boy’s age because he, too, is a victim in this tragedy. How many other times did adults in his short life fail him before the day he got his hands on a loaded gun?

He will be known as an active shooter for the rest of his life.

He is 6 years old.

USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz

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