NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – In many school shootings, the person who pulled the trigger — often a current or former student — is the only one blamed for the crime. But the arrest last week of a mother, whose 6-year-old son shot his teacher, and a related investigation of school employees shows how parents and educators are facing increasing scrutiny over any responsibility they may bear.
While national statistics are hard to come by, at least seven criminal cases against parents have been filed in the last eight years after a child brought a gun to school and it was fired, intentionally or not.
In Virginia, the mother of the 6-year-old was charged with felony neglect, while prosecutors have started investigating whether the actions of Newport News Public Schools employees could lead to criminal charges. The criminal probe was announced a week after the wounded teacher sued the school system. She accused administrators of ignoring multiple warnings that the boy had brought a gun to school.
Criminal investigations of parents as well as schools are rare, experts say. But they appear to be gaining traction as communities demand accountability and new ways to prevent the violence.
HOW OFTEN ARE PARENTS CHARGED AFTER A SCHOOL SHOOTING?
No one tracks such data, according to groups that advocate for more firearm restrictions. But the number appears small compared to the overall number of school shootings.
Guns came from the home of a parent or close relative in 76% of school attacks where firearms were used, according to a 2019 assessment by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The K-12 School Shooting Database lists more than 2,000 incidents of gun violence in schools dating back to 1970. A review of its database and news articles shows that at least 11 adults have been charged, including the Newport News mother.
Seven cases have been brought since 2015.
Among them was a Chicago mother charged last year with child endangerment after a gun in her second-grader’s backpack accidentally discharged at school, injuring a 7-year-old classmate. In 2020, the mother of an Indiana teen received probation for failing to remove guns from her home after her mentally ill son threatened to kill students in 2018. He fired shots inside his school and later killed himself.
Teenager Ethan Crumbley pleaded guilty to killing four students at his Michigan high school in 2021. His parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter and accused of ignoring his mental health needs and making the gun accessible at home.
The Newport News boy shot first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner at Richneck Elementary on Jan. 6 as she sat at a reading table. The 25-year-old was struck by a bullet in her hand and chest. She was hospitalized for two weeks and has had four surgeries.
The boy's mother bought the gun legally, according to police. Her attorney, James Ellenson, has said she believed her gun was secured on a high closet shelf with a trigger lock.
She faces up to six years in prison if convicted of felony child neglect and a misdemeanor charge of recklessly storing a firearm. Ellenson said the mother hopes to broker a plea deal with prosecutors.
Although charges against parents have been rare, the issue has gained more attention with the rising number of shootings, according to Eve Brensike Primus, who teaches criminal procedure at University of Michigan law school.
Prosecutors have faced mounting political pressure to hold people accountable, she said. But proving negligence is challenging because prosecutors often must show that a child’s actions were reasonably foreseeable.
“The question is: At what point do we charge the parents with being able to foresee that the child would do something like this,” Primus said.
HOW EFFECTIVE ARE CHILD GUN SAFETY LAWS?
The shooting in Newport News has also renewed calls for stronger gun storage laws.
Twenty-nine states — including Virginia — have enacted child-access prevention laws that allow for criminal charges against adults who intentionally or negligently allow children unsupervised access to guns, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Newport News mother was charged with a misdemeanor under a Virginia law that prohibits leaving a loaded unsecured gun “in such a manner as to endanger the life or limb of a child” under 14.
Allison Anderman, senior counsel and director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the most effective laws go beyond liability and require gun owners to store firearms in a specific manner, particularly when children are around.
Far fewer states have those, although Michigan’s governor signed a safe-storage bill into law last week, following the 2021 shooting by Ethan Crumbley.
But Virginia lawmakers rejected several storage bills in the wake of the Newport News shooting.
The National Rifle Association said it opposes such “one-size-fits-all” mandates and cited other Virginia laws that hold gun owners responsible. Those include the felony child neglect law that's being used against the mother in Newport News.
D.J. Spiker, the NRA’s Virginia state director, said the group’s members already safely store firearms.
"Why do we need to add more laws to the books?” he said.
HOW OFTEN ARE SCHOOLS INVESTIGATED?
Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, which works to make schools safer, said he knows of only a few criminal probes involving school employees after a shooting — and they're recent.
“I suspect a lot of it is that everybody is just desperate for solutions,” Dorn said.
In Newport News, the prosecutor’s office is seeking a special grand jury to probe if any “security failures” contributed to the shooting by the young boy.
The office didn’t elaborate, but Zwerner’s lawsuit alleges a string of failures by administrators, including ignoring warnings the day of the shooting that the boy had a gun and was in a “violent mood.”
A criminal investigation of school employees also followed the 2021 shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan.
Prosecutor Karen McDonald has noted that school counselors and Ethan Crumbley's parents had met the day of the shooting over a drawing a teacher found on his desk that included a bullet and the words “blood everywhere.” The 15-year-old was sent back to class after his parents refused to take him home.
No school employees have been charged.
Chuck Vergon, a professor of educational law and policy at the University of Michigan-Flint, said these types of charges are rare because criminal negligence can be difficult to prove.
“Prosecutors don’t want to bring actions that they can’t be successful in,” Vergon said, “and the facts are usually not so extreme as to make it either legally plausible to proceed or politically advantageous to proceed.”