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Experts explain school threat assessments process following Richneck shooting

By Danielle Saitta,


As Richneck Elementary School students prepare to head back to school on Jan. 30, parents are still wondering what exactly happened on Jan. 6, when police said a 6-year-old student shot first-grade teacher Abby Zwerner.

In a press conference this week, Zwerner's attorney , Diane Toscano detailed four separate incidents that led teachers, including Zwerner, to speak to the administration about the 6-year-old. Three of those four incidents included telling administrators they believed the child had a gun.

While the shooting is still under investigation, News 3 dove into state requirements for threat assessment teams in schools.

School psychologists said there's a wide range of threats that can be made inside a school—a child could be acting a certain way or they can even make a pre-meditated plan to harm.

"As an example, if a student were to say, I'm going to slap you, this is a minor threat. However, if a child said something more violent like, I'm going to set the teacher on fire is a much more severe threat," said a former school psychologist who preferred not to have their identity revealed

The psychologist said that the state of Virginia requires schools to have a team of faculty members assemble into a threat assessment team.

According to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice, the Virginia code states a team has to be made up of individuals with expertise in counseling, instruction, school administration, and law enforcement. Though the code states that these people don't need to necessarily be currently serving in those roles.

Using the Jan. 6th shooting at Richneck as an example, News 3 asked the psychologist what would have been protocol if some form of a threat was noticed.

"Typically what happens is that somebody needs to interview the student," the psychologist said. "Another person will need to interview witnesses while someone else interviews the teacher. Another team member will need to do a record review and then a call needs to be made to the parent and history has to be collected from them."

In terms of preventative measures, psychologists say there are a few things a team can do if a threat is minor.

"The plan could include things like daily searches, counseling services and then the threat assessment team is mandated to do checks and see how the plan is going, how the student is doing," the psychologist said.

News 3 reached out to Newport News schools and asked if any of this was done. They said the school was in compliance with Virginia law, which requires a threat assessment team at schools. For the moment, the school couldn't give us a play-by-play of what transpired on Jan. 6 because right now the investigation is still ongoing.

News 3 also learned the student and his family are protected by the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

During this tense time, parents at recent school board meetings have been pointing fingers at Newport News schools, wondering if Abigail Zwerner was not being heard or if not enough was being done in general.

"That was completely preventable if the red flags were taken seriously and the proper procedures were clearly communicated and followed," the psychologist said.

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