NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The scene was heartbreakingly familiar. Inside Richneck Elementary School, children and teachers hunkered down in fear. At a family reunification center nearby, desperate parents waited for answers. Some were so panicked that they struggled to breathe. Once again, a school shooting had left a community reeling.
Only this time, the authorities said, the gun had been fired by a 6-year-old boy.
The incident, which initially set off fears about potential mass violence, quickly morphed into another kind of tragedy: a rare example of a school shooting involving an exceptionally young child.
The 6-year-old, a first grader at Richneck Elementary in Newport News, Va., shot a teacher with a handgun on Friday afternoon, the Newport News Police Department said, in an incident that the police said was “not an accidental shooting.” The boy and the teacher had been involved in an altercation in a classroom before the boy shot the teacher once, the police said. The teacher suffered “life-threatening” injuries but had improved by Saturday and was in stable condition.
Police radio traffic posted online by Broadcastify, a streaming service, captured the chaotic moments as a dispatcher communicated with officers responding to the scene.
“We have a female victim shot in the abdomen,” the dispatcher said. She added that the victim had also been shot through the hand and was waiting for medical assistance in the school’s office, where she was “in and out of consciousness.”
A medic was also called to a nearby church, where some parents were reported to be hyperventilating as they waited for information.
It took only six days for the country to register its first school shooting of 2023, according to a tracker by Education Week, a count that is almost certain to grow as school shootings become more common in the United States. Outside Richneck Elementary, a sprawling, green-roofed building in a quiet neighborhood of Newport News, the school’s sign on Saturday still read “Happy New Year.”
Yet school shootings by young children are exceedingly rare, experts say. The K-12 School Shooting Database, which has compiled data on every gun incident at a school — anytime a firearm has been discharged on school property — dating back to 1970, has identified just 16 incidents involving shooters under the age of 10, and even fewer by children as young as 6.
The situation in Newport News left many shaken, with major questions still unanswered.
Among them: How did a 6-year-old child obtain access to a gun? The authorities have not publicly identified the child or the teacher, detailed the nature of the altercation or offered information about whether the gun was taken from home, school or elsewhere.
The boy was in police custody Friday evening, the authorities said, but the unusual nature of the situation leaves the path forward far from clear. While it is possible that the child could be criminally charged, legal scrutiny could also fall on the child’s parents or another adult. Virginia law prohibits leaving a loaded gun where it is accessible to children under the age of 14.
On Saturday, some families were left in a stunned grief.
“It’s scary,” said Ramon Gonzalez-Hernandez, who said his son was in the classroom where the teacher was shot.
“I’m just here trying to keep my son occupied so he’s not thinking about everything,” Mr. Gonzalez-Hernandez added, speaking briefly from his porch. He said he was waiting to hear from detectives to set up counseling sessions and was considering whether to home-school his son.
Tucked on a quiet street where parents and children can often be seen walking in the neighborhood, Richneck Elementary serves a diverse student body of more than 550 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Newport News, a city of about 185,000 in southeast Virginia, is home to a large military community and is known for its shipyard, which builds aircraft carriers and other vessels for the U.S. Navy.
Daniel Smith, 51, who lives near the elementary school, said he was surprised by the shooting because the surrounding neighborhood is generally safe. “We’re a quiet neighborhood,” he said. “Nobody bothers anybody and they look out for each other.”
The shooting renewed calls from teachers’ unions and gun control groups for tougher laws to keep guns out of schools, including laws requiring safe storage. “When will the shock of gunshots in school be enough to inspire the action necessary to prevent guns in schools and the shattering of lives it causes?” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.
Virginia, unlike some other states — notably Oregon and Massachusetts — does not have a broad law that requires all guns to be safely stored in homes.
“Virginia’s law is on the weaker end of the spectrum of these types of laws,” said Allison Anderman, senior counsel and director of local policy at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The state’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, said on Saturday that he believed Virginia already had “some of the toughest gun laws in the nation” but that the next step was to invest more money in mental health treatment and to pass tougher penalties for crimes committed with guns.
In a state budget proposed last month, ahead of the Legislature’s 2023 session next week, the governor requested $230 million for increased capacity to respond to people with mental health issues, including mobile crisis teams, expanded mental health care in schools and same-day care for people in crisis. He also said on Saturday, during a brief interview in Virginia Beach, that he wanted the Legislature to enact tougher penalties for gun crimes, though it was unclear whether either initiative would address how a 6-year-old was able to wield a loaded handgun in school.
Under Virginia law, a 6-year-old cannot be charged as an adult. And while it is possible the child could be charged criminally in juvenile court, the minimum age to be sentenced to a juvenile prison in Virginia is 11.
“The juvenile justice system is not really equipped to deal with really young kids who commit criminal offenses and is probably the wrong place to deal with a situation like this,” said Andrew Block, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and the former director of the Virginia Department of Justice.
The unsettling situation in Virginia comes as greater attention is being paid to gun violence in elementary schools, especially after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, last year.
In the 2020-21 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, 59 elementary schools reported an incident involving a gun, up from 32 the prior year and up from single digits as recently as 2016, according to data from the K-12 School Shooting Database reported by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Not all of the incidents, though, resulted in injury or death. The count includes incidents in which a gun was brandished or fired, or a bullet hit school property, regardless of motive or whether someone was hurt.
“It’s not necessarily that shootings are increasing based on how those incidents are defined, but that the presence of firearms is increasing,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, the interim executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government.
Trip Gabriel, Ava Sasani, Chris Mele and Leah Small contributed reporting. Jack Begg contributed research.