OPINION: Managing with apathy inflames school violence

The Jan. 6 incident involving a 6-year-old Newport News, Virginia, first grader accused of shooting his teacher became more shocking as it evolved. 

Abigail Zwerner, the wounded teacher at Richneck Elementary School, filed a lawsuit against the school district. The school superintendent, George Parker III, was fired [effective Feb. 1] by the school board. Assistant Principal Ebony Parker resigned.

Administrators were “paralyzed by apathy,” said Parker’s attorney Diane Toscano, and did not call police, remove the boy from class, or lock down the school, despite being warned multiple times.

A 6-year-old shot and sounded a teacher at Richneck Elementary School, Newport News, Virginia, on Jan. 6, 2023. Photo credit: Astro Kabir
A 6-year-old shot and sounded a teacher at Richneck Elementary School, Newport News, Virginia, on Jan. 6, 2023. Photo credit: Astro Kabir

More shocks: Revelations that at least four warnings were made to administrators that the boy had a gun, but the administrators ignored the alarms. Eventually, the boy’s backpack was searched but there was no handgun. Someone suggested searching the boy’s pockets, however the administrator said don’t do that; the school day will be over in less than an hour.

That would become the day that never ended. Zwerner was shot in the chest and Richneck Elementary remained closed.

By Thursday morning, Claudia Cox Dawkins, one half of the couple authoring this piece, called me, her husband, Wayne Dawkins, while I was teaching college students: “Two students at our daughter’s school brought knives to school today. One was her student,” Claudia Cox Dawkins said.

The urgency of the call was inevitable because the first-grade violence was familiar in our

household: Less than 30 minutes away in another Southern Virginia school district, our

adult daughter, also a first-grade teacher, has been coping with a disruptive 6-year-old.

The disruptive boy repeatedly erupts in volcanic tantrums, screaming, running around the

classroom, snatching papers, scissors and other items from classmates, and throwing them. The boy often runs out of the classroom. Our 29-year-old daughter several times reported the mayhem to supervisors but received delayed or no response.

Why were administrators at two schools in the same community refusing to diffuse dangerous

situations initiated by children thought too small to attack adults? Are school officials afraid of

documenting violence because the details may result in bad performance ratings? Have these

administrators become that character in “The Wiz” who warned, “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No

Bad News?”

The wife in our marriage comes from a family of teachers who live in Hampton Roads, a.k.a. Coastal Virginia. The internal school culture for disruptive or violent students is for administrators to ignore, avoid, or dispute the necessity to document the problems for fear of retaliation from the top down. Performance recognition is denied to schools that report violence fights, and daily disruptions.

At first, we had sympathy for the superintendent who was fired after last month’s shooting. It didn’t seem to be his fault.

However, perhaps he and other school administrators are held to standards that promote being

“paralyzed by apathy” due to constraints placed on them to avoid documenting or taking action to maintain control.

School boards and administrators must overcome this outdated method of managing by fear.

Creative, innovative solutions have to exist and be implemented that will not put good students and teachers in jeopardy and that allow disturbed children to continue down a path of escalating misconduct.

Wayne and Claudia Cox Dawkins live in Suffolk, Virginia

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