By BEN FINLEY and DENISE LAVOIE (Associated Press)
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — 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. The 25-year-old teacher was hospitalized for nearly two weeks but is now recovering at home.
Several marked and unmarked police cars were parked at the school as teachers arrived. One woman carried flowers into the school.
The sign in front of the building read “Richneck Strong” and was framed by two red hearts. Other signs along the sidewalks leading to the front entrance read, “We are praying for you,” “You are loved” and “We believe in you.”
Jennifer Roe and her fourth-grade son, Jethro, were among the first to arrive. She said they saw a therapist after the shooting.
“He’s excited to get back to school. He’s missed it. He was ready to go back the Monday after (the shooting). He’s very resilient,” 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 said he was excited to return to school, and especially wants to learn “how to write better.”
He said he still had some concern “it might happen again,” but that the stepped-up security measures make him feel better.
“I’m still a little nervous, but I’ve calmed down a lot,” he said. “I’m also happy (to return to school).”
Melissa McBride, who brought her fourth-grade twins to school, said one of the twins “wasn’t sleeping that well” after the shooting. She said they felt better after attending an open house at the school last week.
“They saw the metal detectors and that was a comfort,” she said. “It was a calm atmosphere. It was huge to see their friends and everybody being happy.”
McBride said she was comforted when she saw the twins “going into school with no hesitation,” but that she was still “a little nervous.”
The school board chair, Lisa Surles-Law, said roses were handed out to the students, and all parents were allowed to walk their kids into their classrooms. Therapy dogs were at the school and were being made available to all first-grade students, she said.
Zwerner’s first-grade classroom, where the shooting took place, remained closed. Surles-Law said Zwerner’s students will be taught in another classroom that has been painted and made to look welcoming.
“I walked the building a little while ago, and (the teachers) are very excited to welcome their students back,” she said.
The shooting sent shock waves 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.
Days after the shooting, the school board announced that walk-through metal detectors would be placed in every school in the district. At Richneck, two metal detection systems have been installed and two security officers have been assigned to the school, said Michelle Price, a spokesperson for the school district. 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 security officers will also have a hand-held metal detector wand, Price said. New doors have been installed in classroom areas that didn’t have any, while other doors have been repaired or replaced, she added.
Surles-Law said students would be given clear backpacks on Monday.
The principal and assistant principal both left their jobs after the shooting, and a new administrator has been appointed to lead the school as part of a personnel shake-up.
Karen Lynch, who has worked as a principal in Newport News for 17 years, said in a letter to Richneck families last week that she is now working “on special assignment” at Richneck. Lynch said emotional support services that have been provided to students, families and staff by support specialists, social workers and licensed therapists will continue after the school reopens.
Superintendent George Parker, who was sharply criticized by parents and teachers after the shooting, was fired by the school board last week. Parker has said that at least one school administrator received a tip that the boy may have brought a weapon to school. He said the boy’s backpack was searched, but no weapon was found.
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, remove the boy from class or lock down the school.
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.