By Justin Jouvenal, Hannah Natanson andJim Morrison
Abigail Zwerner was teaching a lesson Friday at a Virginia elementary school, when a six-year-old student pulled out a 9mm he had brought from home, pointed it in her direction and fired a single shot, police said Monday.
The bullet tore through the teacher's raised hand and hit her chest, but despite the grievous wound, the 25-year-old managed to usher 16 to 20 students to safety from her Richneck Elementary School classroom in Newport News, police said.
Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew credited Zwerner with saving lives Monday, after watching the aftermath of the shooting unfold on school surveillance video.
"Ms Zwerner was the last person to leave that class," said Drew, who was visibly shaken. "She made a right turn and started down the hallway and then she stopped. She turned around to make sure every one of those students was safe."
Video: The Washington Post
Authorities gave the dramatic account at a news conference Monday, revealing the most detailed portrait yet of a shooting that Drew labelled "unprecedented." The boy's mother had purchased the gun legally, Drew said, but it remains unclear whether the boy or anyone else will be charged in connection with the case that has shocked a nation that has grown accustomed to school shootings.
The motive for the shooting remains under investigation, but Drew said it was not preceded by any kind of altercation, as police had previously indicated. They are still investigating how the boy got the gun from his home. Drew said the student brought the gun to school in a backpack.
After firing the round, the boy was restrained by a school employee until law enforcement arrived on the scene shortly after 2 pm om Friday, Drew said. The six-year-old was taken to a hospital, where he was given an evaluation and then put under court-ordered mental health treatment. He is still in authorities' custody, receiving treatment at an undisclosed medical facility, authorities said.
Zwerner was rushed to a hospital, where she was initially listed in life-threatening condition before being upgraded to stable condition, Drew said. The police chief visited Zwerner over the weekend and said her first question was: How are my students?
The shooting prompted a school evacuation, and there was a chaotic scene outside as parents anxiously - and sometimes angrily - waited to be reunited with their children. The school has about 550 students enrolled in kindergarten through 5th grade, according to state data.
Once the building was deemed safe, Drew said investigators entered the classroom and found the 9mm Taurus handgun next to the boy's desk; the gun, Drew said, was on the ground when the child was being restrained, though it was not immediately clear how it got there. They also found a single spent shell casing, a cellphone and a backpack nearby.
Drew said police interviewed the six-year-old shooter and his mother a short time later. They determined the gun was in their home and that the mother had brought the boy to school on the day of the shooting. Drew said the mother legally purchased the gun in York County, Virginia.
Police consulted with prosecutors and county service providers before obtaining an emergency custody order from a magistrate for the boy, Drew said. Legal experts said it would be difficult to charge the boy with a crime because under Virginia law, children under seven are presumed not to be able to form the intent to commit an illegal act.
"None of us have a lot of information about dealing with something like this," Drew said.
Newport News Public Schools Superintendent George Parker III said at Monday's news conference the shooting was prompting a review of security at local schools, and officials are working to provide counseling to students.
Richneck Elementary will be closed for the week, longer than the two-day closure previously announced. The school will hold a town hall Thursday, during which Parker said officials may announce new security measures. He said Friday's shooting was the second in a school in Newport News in 17 months.
"We have to find a pathway to move forward," Parker said.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) said in a meeting with The Washington Post's editorial board Monday that he was saddened and shocked by the tragedy and would push for more police officers in schools and tougher penalties for crimes committed with guns, while acknowledging such efforts would not apply to a six-year-old.
"One of the key concerns I have is I wasn't able last year to get school resource officers in every school," Youngkin said. "We didn't get them in every elementary school and we should. And we'll go back and ask one of our legislative colleagues to make a good effort to make sure we can get funding so we can have school resource officers in every school."
Zwerner lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, and is a native of Ruckersville, Virginia, according to her Facebook page. Zwerner graduated from James Madison University's College of Education in 2019 and obtained a master's degree from the same school in 2020, a spokeswoman said. Zwerner and her relatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In a statement released Sunday, James Madison President Jonathan R. Alger said he was "deeply saddened" by the tragedy.
"We offer prayers and best wishes for Abby's health and recovery and want to do all we can to support Abby, her family and friends, fellow teachers and current students and their families at this incredibly difficult time," Alger said. "JMU is prepared to support those impacted by this incident now and in the weeks to come."
Brittaney Gregory, whose son was in the class, told The Post Sunday that Zwerner's first-grade class was in a small reading group and about to switch to art when the six-year-old opened fire.
Gregory described Zwerner as her son's favourite teacher. Gregory said Zwerner was bubbly and outgoing and sometimes left notes in her son's backpack. "I hope you had a great day," one said. "I want you to know your smile is contagious," said another.
Gregory said her son began to act out while her fiance was deployed in the military. Zwerner scheduled a meeting with her and sent Gregory daily reports about her son. "She's such a sweet lady," she added. "She's very attentive to the kids."
Over the weekend, many offered online tributes to Zwerner, praising her as kind and thoughtful. A flood of Zwerner's friends and college classmates took to social media to share their grief over her injuries, often alongside pictures of Zwerner posed outside in the sunshine. Zwerner, they wrote, was a compassionate sister in the Delta Gamma sorority.
One woman wrote that she had been planning to hang out with Zwerner shortly before she was shot. Another wrote that she has known Zwerner since middle school, and that Zwerner has always been unfailingly sweet. Still another friend posted that she was putting together a care package for Zwerner and accepting donations for gift cards to food delivery services and grocery stores.
Virginia Del. Mike Mullen (D) posted on Twitter that Zwerner's church, LifePointe Christian Church in Toano, Va., is accepting mail on her behalf.
MaKhalia Taliaferro-Bibbs, 25, said she was horrified to learn that her childhood friend had been shot. But Taliaferro-Bibbs, who attended middle and high school with Zwerner, was unsurprised to learn that the teacher had acted swiftly, while in severe pain, to save her students' lives.
Hearing the details of Zwerner's heroics led Taliaferro-Bibbs to recall all the times when Zwerner, whom she described as an academic superstar enrolled in advanced classes, helped her with her homework. And the times that Zwerner - a dedicated athlete who loved soccer - stepped in to train Taliaferro-Bibbs in preparation for tryouts for the high school soccer team, which Taliaferro-Bibbs made with Zwerner's help.
"She was always willing to put other people before her," Taliaferro-Bibbs said. "I would describe her as always a helping hand."
Mark Anthony Garcia Sr, a parent of a second grader at Richneck, said his son heard the shooting, before a teacher told the kids to huddle in a safe room on Friday. He said his son, who is eight, does not want to return to school.
Garcia said he's contemplating removing his son from Richneck if security does not improve. He said he wants to hear more from school officials about what they plan to do to keep guns from campus.
"We can't heal if we don't have security," Garcia said.
The Washington Post