What we know about the 6-year-old who shot his Newport News teacher
A 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher in a Newport News classroom last Friday was taken into custody immediately after the shooting.
He was first restrained by a Richneck Elementary School staff member, then taken by officers to a Newport News police car.
No charges have been filed against the first grader — and are highly unlikely because of his age — but he was undergoing treatment at a medical facility this week.
But where is that being done? Who’s treating him? And how long will he be held there?
The answers are murky — partly because the boy is a juvenile and partly because of the normal secrecy surrounding medical or mental health treatment.
Here’s what we do know:
Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said police initially took the 6-year-old into custody under an emergency custody order, or ECO, and he was taken to a local hospital for an initial evaluation.
Under law, police officers and sheriff’s deputies are allowed to issue “paperless” ECOs — without a magistrate or judge — if someone displays signs of a mental health crisis that need immediate intervention. A hospital then has eight hours to conduct an initial evaluation.
For a minor to be held further, the law requires that a local magistrate issue what’s called a “Temporary Detention Order,” or TDO, which allows mental health treatment and evaluation for up to 96 hours — or four days.
The magistrate must issue such an order if the minor “presents a serious danger to himself or others to the extent that severe or irremediable injury is likely to result, as evidenced by recent acts or threats.”
In this case, that TDO would likely have expired Tuesday night.
But Newport News Chief Magistrate Kara Akins, whose office issued the order last weekend, said someone can be held longer than four days by order of a court.
“At the end of the 96 hours, there’s a bedside hearing to determine whether or not additional treatment is needed,” Akins said. “That would happen at the facility where the child is being kept.”
Under the rules, such a decision would likely be made by a “special justice” — an attorney or retired judge designated by Circuit Courts to hold such hearings.
But if the boy’s parents believe a hospital commitment is needed, it’s unclear that a court order would be needed: “A minor younger than 14 years of age may be admitted to a willing mental health facility for inpatient treatment upon application and with the consent of a parent,” a separate statute says.
As for where the boy is being treated, the law says local Community Services Boards — part of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services — “shall determine the facility of temporary detention.”
Natale Christian, executive director of the Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board, did not return a phone call to determine where the Richneck shooter is being treated.
The Newport News magistrate’s initial temporary detention order from last weekend is on file with the Newport News Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. But a court clerk declined to provide a copy Friday, saying the record is confidential because it involves a minor.
Drew said at a news conference Monday the boy gained access to his mother’s gun at home, put it in a book bag and carried it to school that morning.
In the middle of a class at 2 p.m., Drew said, the boy pointed the gun at his teacher, 25-year-old Abigail Zwerner, and fired a single round. He struck Zwerner in a hand, then the chest. No motive has been provided.
“This was not an accidental shooting,” Drew said. Still, legal experts say any criminal charges against the 6-year-old likely wouldn’t stick because he’s too far young to have criminal intent or to understand court proceedings.
As for any possible charges against the boy’s parents, Newport News Police spokeswoman Kelly T. King said Friday police are still investigating. Detectives have not turned the case over to Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn for possible charges.
“They’re still preparing the case for the commonwealth’s attorney,” King said. “There’s no particular timeline for that when that’s going to happen.”
Parents whose children have gained access to guns can be charged with felonies or misdemeanors.
A parent “whose willful act or omission” in caring for their child “was so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life,” can be convicted of child neglect, the law says. That’s a Class 6 felony punishable by up to five years behind bars.
Parents also can be charged with the misdemeanor charge of “allowing access to firearms by children.”
That charge — punishable by up to a year in jail — can be brought when someone “recklessly leaves a loaded, unsecured firearm in such a manner as to endanger the life or limb of any child under the age of fourteen.”
As for who will have custody of the boy long term, experts say that’s likely being investigated by the Newport News office of the Virginia Department of Social Services.
Leslie Siman-Tov, a local attorney often appointed to represent children’s interests in court proceedings, said the agency is highly reluctant to take custody of children if there’s another alternative.
“Social Services does not like to snatch kids,” Siman-Tov said. “If they don’t like the parenting situation, they like to have the child with a family member if at all possible. I don’t know the ins and outs of what’s going on with this particular family, but I can assure you that Social Services does not want to grab this child if there’s anything that they can do.”
Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, email@example.com