Age of Virginia class shooter presents rare legal conundrum

Northeast

Police respond to a shooting at Richneck Elementary School, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023 in Newport News, Va. A shooting at a Virginia elementary school sent a teacher to the hospital and ended with “an individual” in custody Friday, police and school officials in the city of Newport News said. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A school shooting that Virginia police said was committed by a 6-year-old student represents an extremely rare occurrence of a young child bringing a gun into school and wounding a teacher, according to experts who study gun violence.

The boy shot and wounded the teacher in a first-grade classroom on Friday at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, according to authorities. The police chief said the shooting was not accidental and was part of an altercation but didn’t elaborate further. No students were injured.

A school shooting involving a 6-year-old is extremely rare, although not unheard of, with at least one other high-profile example of a 6-year-old in Michigan shooting a fellow student in 2000, experts said. Meanwhile, Virginia law limits the ways in which a child that age can be punished for such a crime.

“There are students who killed teachers, more typically high school students,” said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Boston’s Northeastern University. “I don’t know of other cases where a 6-year-old shot a teacher.”

Fox said he was aware of only one other school shooting involving a student that age. In 2000, a 6-year-old boy fired a bullet from a .32-caliber gun inside Buell Elementary near Flint, Michigan, 60 miles from Detroit, striking a 6-year-old girl who later died from her wound.

Fox analyzed school shooting data going back to 1970 from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, which is located at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He said the data listed school shootings involving children ages 7, 8, 9 and older, but not 6-year-olds.

From 2010 through 2021, there were more than 800 school-related shootings in K-12 schools that involved 1,149 victims. Thirty percent of those occurred in the school building, Fox said.

Daniel W. Webster, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies gun violence, agreed that a 6-year-old shooting a teacher in a school is extremely unusual. But he said his research shows that instances of young children accessing loaded guns and shooting themselves or others unintentionally in homes or other settings are rising.

“A 6 year old gaining access to a loaded gun and shooting him/herself or someone else, sadly, is not so rare,” he said in an email.

In the Newport News case, Police Chief Steve Drew said Friday that the teacher suffered life-threatening injuries but that her condition had improved somewhat by late Friday afternoon. He said the shooting didn’t appear to be an accident and that it was isolated to the single victim. He said the student and teacher had known each other in a classroom setting.

“We did not have a situation where someone was going around the school shooting,” Drew told reporters.

He said the boy had a handgun in the classroom, and investigators were trying to figure out where he obtained it.

Parents and students were reunited at a gymnasium door, Newport News Public Schools said via Facebook.

The police chief did not specifically address questions about whether authorities were in touch with the boy’s parents, but said members of the police department were handling that investigation.

“We have been in contact with our commonwealth’s attorney (local prosecutor) and some other entities to help us best get services to this young man,” Drew said.

Newport News is a city of about 185,000 people in southeastern Virginia known for its shipyard, which builds the nation’s aircraft carriers and other U.S. Navy vessels.

Richneck has about 550 students who are in kindergarten through fifth grade, according to the Virginia Department of Education’s website. School officials have already said that there will be no classes at the school on Monday.

“Today our students got a lesson in gun violence,” said George Parker III, Newport News schools superintendent, “and what guns can do to disrupt, not only an educational environment but also a family, a community.”

Virginia law does not allow 6-year-olds to be tried as adults.

In addition, a 6-year-old is too young to be committed to the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice if found guilty.

A juvenile judge would have authority, though, to revoke a parent’s custody and place a child under the purview of the Department of Social Services.

Associated Press Writer Matthew Barakat in Falls Church contributed to this report.

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