A 6-year-old student at a Virginia elementary school shot and injured a teacher Friday, according to authorities who provided more information about the shooting and the condition of the teacher on Saturday.
Police say the violence was not accidental, as questions swirled about what will happen to the student. Experts say it is rare that a child so young would be accused of intentionally shooting someone.
Police in Newport News, Virginia, said the child and the teacher had an “altercation” before a single shot was fired in a first-grade classroom at Richneck Elementary School on Friday afternoon.
“We did not have a situation where someone was going around the school shooting. We had a situation in one particular location where a gunshot was fired,” Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said.
Here’s what we know.
What is the condition of the injured teacher?
The teacher, a woman in her 30s, had life-threatening injuries on Friday, Drew said.
Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones told USA TODAY Saturday afternoon she was in “stable condition and trending in a positive direction.”
Where did the boy get the gun?
A major focus of the investigation going forward will be where the child got the firearm used, which Drew said was a handgun.
Police have not responded to an inquiry about that aspect of the investigation or about whether any adults were questioned in connection with the shooting.
Gun safety experts have sounded the alarm about children accessing unsecured guns owned by their parents and caregivers and accidentally hurting themselves or others. Research by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety showed in 2022, there were at least 301 accidental shootings by children in the U.S., resulting in 133 deaths and 180 injuries.
A 2019 report from the U.S. Secret Service also found most school attackers who use firearms obtained them in their homes and that those firearms were owned by parents or other relatives.
An estimated 4.6 million children in the U.S. were living in a home with at least one unlocked and loaded gun in 2021, according to a study using data from the National Firearm Survey.
Is it rare for children to commit violent crimes?
Experts say that while there are cases of children, usually teenagers, shooting their teachers, it’s exceedingly rare for a child this young to commit what’s being described by police as an intentional act.
“A 6 year old gaining access to a loaded gun and shooting him/herself or someone else, sadly, is not so rare,” Daniel Webster, a professor who studies gun violence at Johns Hopkins University, told the Associated Press.
There is at least one other instance of a child the same age committing a shooting in a school. In February 2000, 6-year-old Kayla Rolland was shot and killed in her Michigan school by a classmate, also 6. The boy who shot her told authorities he took the gun to school to scare Kayla, according to an Associated Press article at the time. That case sparked calls for greater gun safety nationwide.
Can a 6-year-old be charged with a crime?
The 6-year-old boy who shot Kayla Rolland was not charged because authorities said he was too young to understand what happened. An adult was sentenced for involuntary manslaughter for making the gun accessible to the boy, who lived in the same house. Police said the gun was stored in a shoe box.
In some states, there are minimum ages at which children can be charged with crimes. They range from age 7 in Florida to age 13 in Maryland, though they make exceptions for certain types of violent crimes. Virginia has no such minimum age requirement.
Indeed, young children can be charged with crimes in the state, said Kelly L. DiCorrado, a Virginia lawyer who deals with criminal juvenile defense. DiCorrado remembered her firm representing a 6-year-old who had been charged with grand larceny.
It would be extremely impractical to prosecute a case against a child that young, however, according to Andrew Block, a law professor at the University of Virginia and the former director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice. Block said he doesn’t know of any successful prosecution of a child that age in the state.
“Even if they could, it’s also a question of whether that would be the best way to handle this anyway,” Block said.
What could happen next?
If the child were to be charged, a defense attorney could argue a common law defense of infancy, Block said, meaning he is too young to understand the ramifications of what he’s done. Block and DiCorrado both said he would have to also be found competent by a court, meaning he could assist in his own defense, unlikely with a 6-year-old.
Instead, authorities might file a petition stating he is a child in need of services such as counseling, Block said. It’s more likely authorities will focus on providing services to the boy in the interest of rehabilitation rather than punishment. In Virginia, a child that young could not be put in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice unless they’re charged with a very serious crime, he said, adding that it wouldn’t be the right way to handle this situation.
DiCorrado said whatever happens, it might be a frustrating process for a community at a time with heightened emotion but that people should keep an open mind.
“When we have something like this happen, and we have a crime, we want to see the justice system play out … so that this teacher can receive justice, this school can receive justice,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of people to take into consideration, including this little 6-year-old.”
How has the community reacted?
According to Superintendent George Parker, students at Richneck won’t be back in school Monday as they deal with the aftermath of the tragedy.
Parker said students and staff in the district had gotten “a lesson in gun violence” on Friday, and said education about gun safety to keep school communities safe would be a top priority.
“Thankfully things like this are incredibly rare, but probably when something this extreme happens it’s symptomatic of other things that might be in play whether it’s in the home or in the school or in the community or in our society at large,” Block said.