Researchers urge against 'knee-jerk' reactions in response to Richneck Elem. shooting

Posted at 6:09 PM, Jan 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-17 22:53:43-05

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- Educators, mental health workers and researchers came together on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the next steps for the Newport News school district following a shooting that happened at Richneck Elementary less than two weeks prior.

Newport News Police say a six-year-old allegedly shot Abigail Zwerner, a 25-year-old teacher, during the school day on January 6.

According to the Associated Press, the school learned the child may have had a weapon in his possession before the shooting but did not find one when school staff conducted a backpack search. The AP reported at least one school administrator was notified that the boy may have had a weapon.

In response to the shooting, the district said it secured funding for about 90 new metal detectors to be put in all school levels, starting with Richneck Elementary.

At the discussion, several researchers agreed that metal detectors may not be effective in creating a safe school environment.

"Those metal detectors aren't stopping anyone," said Jim Freeman, the director of the Social Movement Support Lab. "Adding metal detectors will have long-term psychological impacts on children, as young as five years old."

Dr. David Osher, the Vice President of the American Institutes of Research, called hard security approaches like metal detectors "symbolic, feel-good solutions," suggesting a human approach.

Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist with the University of Virginia, worries about what he called a "knee-jerk" reaction to the shooting.

"I worry for the six-year-olds in your community. The six-year-olds in your community are now at risk because some of them are going to say something inappropriate about violence. One of them may point their finger like a gun and go 'pow pow' or make a drawing of a gun. And those students are going to come under great scrutiny and you want to be careful that you don't engage in a kind of knee-jerk reaction to removing that student from the school in the name of safety and the name of prevention in a misguided way," Cornell said.

National Center for Prevention of Community Violence Executive Director Bobby Kipper said schools need to act quickly when a child may act out in school or display signs, they might become a threat to themselves or others.

"Schools don't invent violence, they have to deal with it," Kipper said. "Behavior without some kind of services or consequences is permission to go to the next level. And I think we need to provide those services and we need to mitigate that behavior at a much earlier level for our students, not only in our schools but in our community."

Some educators worried about the effectiveness of hardened security measures like metal detectors, due to staffing shortages that continue to persist.

"If we're going to have metal detectors, we need people in those buildings that are going to truly operationalize those in a manner that we know that they're being used effectively and safely," said Virginia Education Association President and CEO James J. Fedderman.

"When we're spending billions of dollars, literally billions of dollars on security measures, those funds are not being allocated for these types of programs, so it has to start at the legislative level," Cornell said.

Fedderman also spoke about different school districts assessing violence prevention in schools.

"We have to create a system and a climate where adults and lawmakers are addressing their own biases as it relates to policies. Our students are like credit cards. We can pay now or pay later," Fedderman said. "And we're strongly divided in the approach in how we look at students who come from communities of color or whether we look at students who come from predominately white areas. Our students that are in the most need now, it's not secret, it's our Black and Brown children."

Mental health workers in the area say they're also stretched thin.

The Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters, where sources say the six-year-old is receiving treatment, is feeling it firsthand.

"I would be remiss if I didn't mention how we are under-resourced and how we are underfunded with children's mental health today. We have to do better. We have to do better in our communities. We have to do better by our schools, we have to be able to offer services to kids where they can actually get access to that care," said Stephanie Osler, the hospital's Director of the Mental Health Service Line.

The hospital was said to have recently opened a new 60-bed facility, but Osler said only 24 of those 60 beds are open, due to a lack of resources.

"Workforce development has been a challenge. Funding has been a challenge. There have been lots of things that create challenges for community mental health, for access in our community, those challenges are something that we have to continue to address in order for our communities to become safer," she said.

Some solutions, researchers said, include spotting the signs early, but Parker said he's seen roadblocks to students getting immediate help.

"Because of some Medicaid changes, we're now seeing that our contracts that we're getting with therapeutic day-treatment providers are not able to get kids qualified through the Medicaid process. This has to change," Parker said. "That's not just impacting Newport News. That's impacting the entire state."

The parent also spoke out during the discussion saying they want a say in any next steps.

"What we feel, is that we are left out of the conversations and left out of the table invites when we're speaking about such issues," said Pam Croom with the Virginia Parent Teacher Association.



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