Students at Richneck Elementary School navigated new safety protocols as they returned to classes Monday for the first time since a 6-year-old student allegedly shot his teacher inside a classroom nearly a month ago.
Police were on campus as anxious parents dropped their children off at the Newport News, Virginia, campus. Newly-appointed school administrator Karen Lynch said in an email to families that the officers would be there to “assist with the transition.”
“There was a lot of smiles, a lot of high-fives, some fist bumps going on,” Newport News Police Chief Steve R. Drew told CNN, adding his goal was to restore normalcy. “We had a lot of officers here. I didn’t want it to be overwhelming, but I wanted those kids to know we support them, as well as the faculty and staff.”
The school has been closed since January 6, when a 6-year-old student allegedly shot first grade teacher Abby Zwerner, firing a bullet through her hand and into her chest, according to police. The 25-year-old was later stabilized and released from the hospital.
The incident has resulted in the ousting of the Newport News Public Schools superintendent and the reassignment of the school’s principal to another school. Since the shooting, the school board has held several meetings as it grapples with how to handle the incident in the face of backlash from frustrated parents.
Children were told to arrive Monday without a backpack because the school plans to provide them with clear ones on Monday, Lynch said. If students bring lunch items to school, they will be run through a metal detector and are subject to search, the email says.
The school district told CNN it has installed two metal detectors on campus.
The school will be limiting visitors during this first week of instruction to allow staff “the opportunity to establish routines and procedures with students,” the email states. Parents will not be allowed to enter classrooms and those who choose to walk their children to class must show identification and are also subject to search, it said.
The father of a student who was in the same class as the 6-year-old said Monday he has “no misgivings” about sending his son back to school.
“I think with new administration, this administration that listens to teachers, listens to concerns and acts on those concerns … this is probably going to be the safest school in the area for a good long while,” Thomas Britton told CNN.
DeDe Williams, the grandmother of a Richneck Elementary third grader, described the first day back as “overwhelming.”
“It’s sad that we have to go in and see all the officers there at an elementary school with these babies,” Williams said, “but it made my heart feel better that they were there, taking it serious.”
Student was ‘seen choking a teacher’ in kindergarten, union head alleges
While police have not publicly identified the student, his family has released statements saying the boy suffers from “an acute disability.”
The family has said the gun the child allegedly brought to school in his backpack – one police said was legally purchased by his mother – was secured by a trigger lock and kept on the top shelf of a closet. As part of his disability care plan, a family member usually went to class with him, but he was not accompanied the day of the incident, they said.
“We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives,” the family statement said.
Amid the backlash from other students’ parents, school officials are facing more questions about whether enough was done to prevent the shooting.
On Monday, the head of the local teacher’s union alleged in an interview with CNN the 6-year-old was seen choking a teacher while in kindergarten.
“What has been reported to the union is that, in his kindergarten days, he was seen choking a teacher,” Newport News Education Association James Graves said in the interview with CNN’s Brian Todd. “That’s what I was told by the union,” Graves said. He was informed of the choking incident after the January shooting, he said.
When CNN reached out to the 6-year-old’s family attorney, James Ellenson, about the allegations, Ellenson said in an email: “We have no comment.”
According to Graves, teachers said the school told them, “don’t worry about it,” regarding the choking allegations.
“That’s basically what I can say, but we’re still investigating that issue, too,” Graves said.
CNN has reached out to the Newport News School District, to former Richneck Principal Briana Foster Newton and to the attorney for the teacher who was shot, for a response to the choking claim. They have not replied.”
Last week, a lawyer representing the injured teacher alleged that school administrators were warned multiple times by staff who expressed concerns that the student had a gun and was making threats to people the day of the shooting. The lawyer, Diane Toscano, alleged Zwerner was shot about an hour after an employee was denied permission to search the student.
CNN has reached out to the school district for comment on Toscano’s claims.
As students return to school, the district says support services made available to them since the incident will continue on site.
Asked Monday whether school administrators or staff could face charges in connection to the incident, Drew would not comment. As for whether the mother could face charges, Drew, the police chief, said that decision will be made by the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.
“Today, for me and this department and I would even say for our city, was about kids getting back to school,” the police chief said, “making sure that they’re safe.”
The school has compiled an Amazon wish list of items teachers have requested “to support students’ social-emotional needs post-tragedy,” a post on the school’s Facebook account said.
CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe, Dakin Andone, Aya Elamroussi, Chris Boyette, Michelle Watson, Brian Todd and Hannah Sarisohn contributed to this report.