NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – The Virginia elementary school where a 6-year-old boy shot his teacher reopened Monday with stepped-up security and a new administrator, as nervous parents and students expressed optimism about a return to the classroom.
Richneck Elementary School in Newport News opened its doors more than three weeks after the Jan. 6 shooting. Police have said the boy brought a 9 mm handgun to school and intentionally shot his teacher, Abby Zwerner, as she was teaching her first-grade class. Zwerner, 25, was hospitalized for nearly two weeks but is now recovering at home.
Several police cars were parked at the school as teachers arrived.
The sign in front of the building read “Richneck Strong” and was framed by two red hearts. Other signs along the sidewalks read, “We are praying for you,” "You are loved" and “We believe in you.”
Students were greeted by a line of police officers, Mayor Phillip Jones, and other adults who gave them high-fives as they walked into the school.
Jennifer Roe said she and her fourth-grader, Jethro, saw a therapist after the shooting.
“He's excited to get back to school. He's missed it," Roe said.
“There are concerns, of course,” she said. “We talked through it. His therapist gave me a thumbs-up and said he's good."
Jethro said he still had some concern “it might happen again," but that the increased security made him feel better.
“I'm still a little nervous, but I've calmed down a lot,” he said.
Melissa McBride, who brought her fourth-grade twins to school, said one of them wasn't sleeping that well after the shooting, but the children felt better after attending an open house at the school last week.
“It was huge to see their friends and everybody being happy," she said.
McBride said she was comforted when she saw the twins “going into school with no hesitation," but that she was still “a little nervous."
Many parents walked their children in, but Jordan Vestre said his third-grader, Jaxon, asked if he could walk in alone. Vestre said he gave Jaxon a hug and "stood back a little teary-eyed and watched him high-five all the police officers and the mayor.”
Vestre said his son “fully understands what happened.” But he added: “How do you talk to an 8-year-old about a school shooting? It’s ridiculous.”
Eve Parham said her fourth-grade granddaughter was very excited to return to school, particularly to her archery class. Parham praised the additional safety measures, including the planned distribution of clear backpacks to students.
There were two other shootings in Newport News schools in the 16 months before the Richland shooting. Two 17-year-old students were wounded when a 15-year-old boy fired shots in a crowded high school hallway. Two months later, an 18-year-old student fatally shot a 17-year-old in the parking lot of a different high school.
“Unfortunately, the teacher had to be our sacrificial lamb to bring this to light,” Parham said, referring to Zwerner. “I applaud her. And I’m grateful that she’s okay and that it caused this reaction."
Eric Billet, who has a second-grader and a fourth-grader at Richneck, said that although he’s happy with the increased security, he also fears that Richneck could be “slightly overcorrecting” with some of its new policies, including not wanting students to bring in toys or anything that’s not considered educational.
“It’s good, but I just don’t want it to turn into a prison feel if you start cracking down on too many things,” Billet said.
Not all teachers were ready to return.
James Graves, who heads the local teachers union, the Newport News Education Association, said he has heard from several who were told that if they weren't ready to come back, they must use their personal leave time or the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides some employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave.
“There are teachers who are glad to kind of go back because they care about the kids, and there are teachers who cannot handle trauma and stress the way other teachers can," Graves said. “I want to make sure the teachers who cannot handle that stress because of what happened, that they are taken care of.”
The school board chair, Lisa Surles-Law, said roses were handed out to the students and therapy dogs were made available to all first-graders.
Zwerner’s classroom remained closed. Her students will be taught in another classroom, Surles-Law said.
"I walked the building a little while ago, and (the teachers) are very excited to welcome their students back,” she said.
The shooting sent shockwaves through Newport News, a city of about 185,000 that is known for its shipbuilding industry. It has also raised questions about school security and how a child so young could gain access to a gun and shoot his teacher.
Since then, two metal detection systems have been installed and two security officers have been assigned to the school, said district spokeswoman Michelle Price. Before the shooting, one security officer was assigned to Richneck and another elementary school. The officer was not at Richneck at the time of the shooting.
The principal and assistant principal both have left their jobs, and a new administrator has been appointed to lead the school.
Superintendent George Parker, who was fired by the school board last week, has said that at least one school administrator received a tip that the boy may have brought a weapon to school, but no weapon was found when the boy's backpack was searched.
Zwerner's lawyer, Diane Toscano, said that on the day of the shooting, concerned staff at Richneck warned administrators three times that the boy had a gun and was threatening other students, but the administration didn’t call police or remove the boy from class.
Police said the handgun was legally purchased by the boy's mother. In a statement released through their attorney, the boy's family said the gun was “secured." Attorney James Ellenson told The Associated Press that his understanding is that the gun was in the mother's closet on a shelf well over 6 feet (1.8 meters) high and had a trigger lock that required a key.
Lavoie reported from Richmond.