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What we know and don’t know about the case of a 6-year-old who allegedly shot his teacher

<i>John C. Clark/AP</i><br/>Messages of support for teacher Abby Zwerner
John C. Clark/AP
Messages of support for teacher Abby Zwerner

By Dakin Andone, CNN

Like many other American cities before it, Newport News, Virginia, is this week dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting.

This time, however, the suspected shooter is just 6 years old, according to police, who said the child opened fire in a classroom at Richneck Elementary school, sending a wounded teacher to the hospital. The age of the suspected shooter has left a community and country reeling from the news that a first grader allegedly obtained a gun, brought it to school and opened fire on his teacher.

Authorities have provided general information about the shooting. But there are numerous questions that remain unanswered — including how a 6-year-old could gain possession of a weapon and what the potential legal repercussions for the student or his parents might be — something city officials acknowledged in recent days.

“There’s a lot of questions that we have to answer as a community,” Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones told CNN on Sunday, including, “how a 6-year-old was able to have a gun, know how to use it in such a deliberate manner.”

“The individuals responsible will be held accountable,” the mayor said. “I can promise that.”

Here’s a look at what we know — and don’t know — about Friday’s shooting.

Student was taken into police custody

Officials have released few details about the student publicly, aside from the fact he is 6.

He was taken into police custody immediately after the shooting, police Chief Steve Drew said in a news conference at the time, adding no other students were involved. The boy was under a temporary detention order and was being evaluated at a hospital, police said on Monday.

The shooting was not accidental, Drew said previously, and he told reporters Monday the teacher was “providing class instruction when the 6-year-old child displayed a firearm, pointed it at her and fired one round.”

“There was no physical struggle or fight,” he said.

Police received the call that a teacher had been shot at 1:59 p.m., Drew said. When officers entered the classroom five minutes later, the boy was being physically restrained by a school employee, police said. He was combative and struck the employee restraining him. Officers escorted him from the building and into a police car.

The gun — which was legally purchased by the 6-year-old’s mother — was taken by the child from his home, Drew said. The child brought it to school Friday in his backpack. It remains unclear how the child accessed the weapon.

Authorities have been in touch with the child’s parents, Kelly King, a police spokesperson, told CNN’s Brian Todd on Monday, but she could not identify them.

Teacher upgraded to stable condition

Officials identified the victim Monday as Abigail Zwerner, a 25-year-old teacher who has been praised for her actions after being shot — including ensuring her students were safe.

“When I met with Abigail’s family on Saturday and they took me up to her room, she asked me, first question, ‘Do you know how my students are?'” Drew said. “She was worried about them.”

While her injuries were initially described as life-threatening, she has been listed in stable condition since Saturday, the Newport News Police Department said.

Zwerner — who is described as a first-grade teacher in Richneck Elementary’s online staff directory — was shot through the hand, the chief told reporters Monday, by a bullet that then hit her in the chest. “But she was still able to get all of her students out of that classroom,” Drew said, noting surveillance footage showed students running into the classroom across the hall.

A GoFundMe page organized by Zwerner’s twin sister has raised about $70,000 since it was created Monday.

“Abby, my family, and I are humbled by the outpouring of support we’ve received in the days following the event,” Zwerner’s sister wrote. “Thank you for all of the prayers, well wishes, and words of kindness.”

Student is likely too young to stand trial, expert says

It’s unclear what legal consequences the student may or may not face in the shooting.

While it’s technically possible for prosecutors to file charges against a 6-year-old in Virginia, which does not have a statutory age limit, “it is incredibly unlikely that it would lead to a successful prosecution,” said Andrew Block, an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.

The main hurdle, Block said, is a defendant must be found competent to stand trial — meaning the court must find the defendant is able to both understand the nature of the legal proceedings against him and assist his lawyers in his own defense.

“It’s virtually impossible to imagine that a 6-year-old would meet either of the criteria necessary to find competency,” said Block, who is also former director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice.

Hypothetically, if prosecutors did file charges, the 6-year-old’s attorneys would have available to them the “infancy defense,” Block said, which essentially says anyone under the age of seven can never be found criminally responsible.

The student is also likely too young for a detention center if he were to be found guilty, Block told CNN. “The juvenile justice system is not set up to handle kids this young,” he said.

The courts would have limited options in Virginia, where one must be 11 years old to be held in custody in a state facility, Block said. That leaves open other possibilities, like residential treatment or “wraparound” support services for the family.

Alternatively, the student could be found to be a “child in need of services,” Block said, which would mean the child was “engaging in behavior that puts either themselves or others at serious risk of harm,” and the courts could step in to make sure the child received the needed services.

“Given the little that we know, that seems like it would be a more expedient, appropriate and hopefully productive path for people to pursue if it ends up going to court at all,” Block said.

Friday’s shooting was the first of 2023 at a US school, according to analysis by CNN. But shootings in US schools have become far more common than they are in any other country. In 2022, there were 60 shootings at K-12 schools, the CNN analysis shows.

Still, school shootings by a suspect so young are relatively rare. According to the K-12 School Shooting Database, which tracks shootings in American schools going back to 1970, there have been three other cases in which the suspect was as young as 6: in 2000, 2011 and 2021.

Too early to know if parents face repercussions

It’s “hard to speculate” about what might happen to the parents without knowing how the 6-year-old obtained the gun, Block told CNN on Monday, prior to the news conference in which the police chief confirmed the gun was taken by the child from his home.

There is a scenario where the parents could be held criminally liable if they did not keep the weapon properly locked up and safely out of the hands of their child. But in Virginia, that’s only a Class 1 misdemeanor.

“But we just don’t know right now how he came into possession of the gun, why he wanted the gun, what the context of this whole tragedy is,” Block said. “So it’s hard to know if there’s criminal liability or not, and who should have it.”

It was “certainly a possibility” the mother could face charges, Drew told “CNN This Morning” on Tuesday. But authorities continue to investigate, he said, noting they were checking for any possible history with Child Protective Services.

“And at the end of the day, when that’s all compiled together and the facts and what the law supports, the Commonwealth’s attorney will make the decision if there are any charges forthcoming … towards the parents,” Drew said.

While King, the police spokesperson, confirmed police were in contact with the 6-year-old’s parents, she could not answer questions about whether they were in custody, facing criminal charges — or if they’ve been cooperating with investigators.

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