Befuddled parents wonder how 6-year-old Virginia boy shot teacher after his backpack was searched

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Parents at the Virginia elementary school where a 6-year-old boy shot a first-grade teacher this month are demanding answers for how the child managed to use the weapon after his backpack was searched.

“That doesn’t make sense to me. If the backpack was searched, they didn’t search it right,” said Desiree Yvette, whose 6-year-old daughter witnessed the Jan. 6 shooting at Richneck Elementary School in which Abigail Zwerner was critically wounded.

Yvette continued: “They didn’t physically go in there to make sure that there wasn’t anything there. If that was the case, then someone should have been able to see it. They should have searched other places if they felt there was a need to search. And if they didn’t — they failed.”

Yvette was among a group of Richneck parents who spoke to NBC News on Sunday and questioned how thoroughly the child, his backpack and the school were searched before the shooting in Zwerner’s class as she was teaching about 20 students.

Zwerner survived and is recovering, officials have said.

The school system’s superintendent, George Parker III, said Thursday at a virtual town hall that wasn’t public that the boy had come to school late and that his book bag was inspected upon his arriving at the office to sign in, according to parents who watched the meeting.

“At least one administrator was notified of a possible weapon,” Parker said in a video reviewed by NBC News.

A Newport News police spokeswoman said authorities also determined through their investigation that “a school employee was notified of a possible firearm at Richneck Elementary before the shooting occurred,” adding, “The Newport News Police Department was not notified of this information prior to the incident.”

Further details weren’t made available about who conducted the search, why the gun wasn’t found and whether the child’s clothing was physically examined.

Thomas Britton, 35, questioned the steps school officials took after they learned the child may have taken a gun into the school.

“You have a tip, a search and a shot fired,” said Britton, who questioned whether the child was pulled from the classroom and whether his parents were notified that the boy was suspected of sneaking a gun onto the campus.

“What did they do, just, like, peek in the backpack and say, ‘I don’t see a gun. Go back to class’?” Britton said. “If there was somebody who said that my child brought a weapon, I would want to be notified, and I also would want him to be removed from class until it was straightened out.”

Britton’s son was supposed to be in Zwerner’s class during the shooting but was absent because he had a medical procedure.

Yvette’s daughter was there, although her mom wishes she hadn’t been.

Yvette, 31, said seeing the horror in Zwerner’s classroom has traumatized the girl.

She broke down in tears talking about her daughter’s pain.

“She’s scared of everything and everybody right now,” Yvette said. “She doesn’t feel safe. Her teacher was her biggest advocate, Mrs. Zwerner. And to experience that and see that, she doesn’t feel safe, because the person that was her safety in that school got hurt. She’s scared that anybody she loves and cares about is going to get hurt because of this.”

Mark Anthony Garcia, 38, said his second-grade son is “shaken up” after he heard the shot and then tried to help students who were crying.

Garcia said he’s upset that the administration didn’t immediately notify parents after the shooting. “Once the news dropped it, that’s when a lot of parents started rushing to the school with mass confusion,” Garcia said.

He also said there was no security officer who could have properly checked the boy’s person for a gun. “They did not have security there in the morning. I’m there every day. We don’t have security there in the morning.”

Now, Garcia said, he wants to know “who is going to be held accountable” for security lapses at the school.

Richneck will be outfitted with a metal detector, district officials announced last week. The district has secured funding for 90 state-of-the-art metal detectors that will be placed at all district schools. Richneck has been closed since the shooting, officials said.

The school district has had three instances of gun violence in 17 months.

Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said the investigation continues.

He previously has said that the child’s mother legally bought the 9 mm Taurus firearm used in the shooting and that the boy took the gun from his home. Whether it was properly secured is a key element in the investigation, Drew has said.

Drew said Sunday the investigation entails looking into the boy and his parent’s history. He also said student witnesses will be interviewed.

“If there are any child protective service records, we want to look at those. If there are any school records dealing with behavioral issues or anything at all, dealing with violence, threats,” those reports will also be investigated, he said.

Drew added: “Regrettably, we want to talk to — I wish we didn’t have to, but to be thorough, we want to do our best — to talk to the students that were in the room. And we’ll be partnering with a child psychologist who will be handling those interviews for us.”

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