Like many other American cities before it, Newport News, Virginia, is this week dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting.
This time, however, the suspected shooter is just 6 years old, according to police, who said the child opened fire in a classroom at Richneck Elementary school, sending a teacher to the hospital. The age of the suspected shooter has left a community and country reeling from the possibility that a first grader obtained a gun, brought it to school and opened fire on his teacher.
Authorities have provided general information about the shooting. But there are numerous questions that remain unanswered – including how a 6-year-old allegedly gained possession of the weapon and what the potential legal repercussions for the student or his guardians are – something city officials acknowledged in recent days.
“There’s a lot of questions that we have to answer as a community,” Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones told CNN on Sunday, including, “how a 6-year-old was able to have a gun, know how to use it in such a deliberate manner.”
“The individuals responsible will be held accountable,” the mayor said. “I can promise that.”
Here’s a look at what we know – and don’t know – about Friday’s shooting.
Police have released few details about the student publicly, aside from the fact he is 6 years old and that he was in police custody as of Friday, per police Chief Steve Drew.
The shooting was not accidental, Drew said, adding it followed an altercation between the teacher and the student. No other students were involved, he said.
Authorities have been in touch with the child’s parents, Kelly King, a police spokesperson, told CNN’s Brian Todd on Monday, but she could not identify them.
Newport News officials have also not named the victim, but James Madison University, her alma mater, identified the teacher in a statement as Abby Zwerner, who is also listed as a first-grade teacher in Richneck Elementary’s online staff directory.
“All of us as James Madison University are deeply saddened by the reported tragic shooting of JMU alumna Abby Zwerner,” university President Jonathan R. Alger said.
While her injuries were initially described as life-threatening, she was listed in stable condition by Saturday, the Newport News Police Department said.
The mayor confirmed the victim was in stable condition in an interview with CNN Sunday, adding city officials had visited the hospital in recent days.
“We have spoken to the family almost every single day,” Jones said.
A 6-year-old shot a teacher in class. Hear from an 8-year-old student who was down the hall
It’s unclear what legal consequences the student may or may not face in the shooting.
While it’s technically possible for prosecutors to file charges against a 6-year-old in Virginia, which does not have a statutory age limit, “it is incredibly unlikely that it would lead to a successful prosecution,” said Andrew Block, an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.
The main hurdle, Block said, is a defendant must be found competent to stand trial – meaning the court must find the defendant is able to both understand the nature of the legal proceedings against him and assist his lawyers in his own defense.
“It’s virtually impossible to imagine that a 6-year-old would meet either of the criteria necessary to find competency,” said Block, who is also the former director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice
Hypothetically, if prosecutors did file charges, the 6-year-old’s attorneys would have available to them the “infancy defense,” Block said, which essentially says anyone under the age of seven can never be found criminally responsible.
The student is also likely too young for a detention center if he were to be found guilty, Block told CNN. “The juvenile justice system is not set up to handle kids this young,” he said.
The courts would have limited options in Virginia, where one must be 11 years old to be held in custody in a state facility, Block said. That leaves open other possibilities, like residential treatment or “wraparound” support services for the family.
Alternatively, the student could be found to be a “child in need of services,” Block said, which would mean the child was “engaging in behavior that puts either themselves or others at serious risk of harm,” and the courts could step in to make sure the child received the needed services.
“Given the little that we know, that seems like it would be a more expedient, appropriate and hopefully productive path for people to pursue if it ends up going to court at all,” Block said.
As for the parents, Block said it’s “hard to speculate” without knowing how the 6-year-old obtained the gun.
There is a scenario where the parents could be held criminally liable if the weapon belonged to them and they did not keep it properly locked up and safe and out of the hands of their children. But in Virginia, that’s only a Class 1 misdemeanor.
“But we just don’t know right now how he came into possession of the gun, why he wanted the gun, what the context of this whole tragedy is,” Block said. “So it’s hard to know if there’s criminal liability or not, and who should have it.”
While King, the police spokesperson, confirmed police were in contact with the 6-year-old’s parents, she could not answer questions about whether they were in custody, face criminal charges or if they’ve been cooperating with investigators.