Lawyer: 6-year-old who shot teacher has ‘acute disability’

Jan 18, 2023, 6:01 PM | Updated: Jan 19, 2023, 6:39 pm

Messages of support for teacher Abby Zwerner, who was shot by a 6 year old student, grace the front...

Messages of support for teacher Abby Zwerner, who was shot by a 6 year old student, grace the front door of Richneck Elementary School Newport News, Va. on Monday Jan. 9, 2023. The Virginia teacher who authorities say was shot by a 6-year-old student is known as a hard-working educator who’s devoted to her students and enthusiastic about the profession that runs in her family. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)

(AP Photo/John C. Clark)

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The family of a 6-year-old boy who shot and wounded his teacher in Virginia said Thursday that the child suffered from “an acute disability” and that one of his parents usually accompanied him in class but did not the week the shooting occurred.

Also on Thursday, the hospital that had been treating the teacher said that she was released earlier this week and is continuing outpatient care.

The statement from the boy’s family was released through the office of attorney James S. Ellenson. It is the first public communication from the child’s family since the shooting occurred on Jan. 6 in the city of Newport News.

“Our family has always been committed to responsible gun ownership and keeping firearms out of the reach of children,” said the family, which was not identified. “The firearm our son accessed was secured.”

The statement did not elaborate further on where the 9mm handgun was kept or what they meant by “secured.”

Ellenson told The Associated Press by phone Thursday evening that his understanding is that the gun was in the mother’s closet on a top shelf that was well over six feet high. The weapon also had a trigger lock that requires a key, similar to a bike lock.

Regarding how the child may have gotten access to the gun, Ellenson said: “We don’t know.”

Regarding the disability, the family said the boy “was under a care plan at the school that included his mother or father attending school with him and accompanying him to class every day.”

The family said the week of the shooting “was the first week when we were not in class with him. We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives.”

It was unclear what the family meant by accompanying him to class everyday and whether that included staying with him during instruction.

The statement did not define the boy’s disability. And it did not explain what his “care plan” was and whether it was similar to other plans that serve children with disabilities.

Ellenson said the plan was what is known as an “individualized education program” or IEP, which is provided to students with disabilities under federal law. When asked if the disability was intellectual or behavioral, Ellenson said it was “all of the above.”

Ellenson said the boy’s parents had been accompanying him to class for a number of weeks. He said he believes that a parent would sit with him during class “on occasion.”

“And then I guess it was a joint decision between the school and the parents that this was no longer necessary,” Ellenson said.

Federal law requires public schools to make accommodations for students with disabilities and to modify curriculums, if necessary, to serve a student’s educational needs and goals, said Michael J. Kennedy, a professor of special education at the University of Virginia.

About 12% of students in U.S. public schools have what’s known as an “individualized education program,” Kennedy said. They require input from parents, teachers and other staff, such as a school psychologist.

An accommodation for students with learning disabilities could be giving them extended time to complete an assignment or a test, Kennedy said. An accommodation for students with behavioral disabilities could mean seating them close to the teacher.

It is rare, however, for students with disabilities to be accompanied by an adult, such as an instructional aide who works with children one-on-one, Kennedy said. But it does happen among a small number of students, particularly with children who have extensive needs.

Kennedy, a former special education teacher, said he’s never heard of parents serving a similar role in the classroom.

“This is the school’s responsibility,” he said. “If the child has a disability of that severity that they need full-time support, that should be agreed to by the (individualized education program) team. And then the school would provide it.”

The shooting has drawn international attention to Newport News, a shipbuilding city which sits along the James River near Chesapeake Bay. It has many people across the nation struggling to comprehend how such a thing could happen, while fueling an ongoing debate about how schools discipline children.

Police have said that the 6-year-old’s mother legally purchased the gun but that it was unclear how her son gained access to it. A Virginia law prohibits leaving a loaded gun where it is accessible to a child under 14, a misdemeanor crime punishable with a maximum one-year prison sentence and a $2,500 fine.

The shooting occurred as Abigail Zwerner was teaching her first grade class at Richneck Elementary. Authorities said there was no warning and no struggle before the boy pointed the gun at Zwerner. The bullet pierced her hand and struck her chest, police said. The 25-year-old teacher hustled her students out of the classroom before being rushed to the hospital.

The superintendent of Newport News schools revealed last week that Richneck administrators had learned the child may have had a weapon before the shooting. But a search did not find the handgun, despite staff looking through his bag.

Thursday’s statement from the boy’s family said that “we pray for her healing in the aftermath of such an unimaginable tragedy as she selflessly served our son and the children in the school.”

“She has worked diligently and compassionately to support our family as we sought the best education and learning environment for our son,” the family’s statement continued. “We thank her for her courage, grace and sacrifice. We grieve alongside all of the other teachers, families and administrators for how this horrific incident has impacted them, our community, and the nation.”

The family said the child has been under hospital care since the shooting and is receiving “the treatment he needs.”

“At the same time, we love our son and are asking that you please include him and our family in your prayers.”

Steve Drew, the Newport News police chief, has described the shooting as “intentional.” A judge will determine what’s next for the child.

Ellenson, the attorney for the boy’s family members, said they are cooperating fully with police in their investigation.

No charges have been brought against the mother, but the investigation continues, Drew said Wednesday during a Facebook live chat with the community.

The chief was asked at least twice about whether the boy’s parents would be held accountable or the mother charged. Drew responded by saying he wanted to ensure detectives were able to conduct a thorough investigation.

“I am not going to rush them,” Drew said. His department has a great relationship with local prosecutors, he said, and he has “tremendous faith” that “they will make the right decision based on the evidence that they have in front of them.”

Investigators have nearly finished interviewing the children who were in the classroom, Drew said, and police are working with a psychologist to talk to them about what they saw.

“This is a unprecedented incident that we have had in our city, where a 6-year-old child obtained a firearm, brought it to school, pointed it, fired and shot his teacher in front of other students,” the chief said. “I have a young teacher who suffered a gunshot wound while teaching her classroom. By the grace of God, she’s still with us today.”

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Lawyer: 6-year-old who shot teacher has ‘acute disability’