What the School-Discipline Meltdown Looked like in Newport News

by James A. Bacon

A special grand jury investigating a six-year-old’s shooting of a teacher at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News has released its report, and the findings are almost as horrifying as the shooting itself.

The grand jury indicted Richneck’s assistant principal Ebony Parker on eight counts of child abuse. It is the first time, suggests The Washington Post, that an administrator has been charged in connection with a school shooting.

While Parker’s inaction was surely inexcusable, the breakdown in safety runs far deeper than the negligence of a single school official. The behavior of Parker and other individuals reflects institutional dysfunction, which in turn reflects deep-rooted attitudes in the educational profession and society at large.

These dysfunctions and attitudes, I suggest, are endemic throughout most of Virginia’s public education system. They are reflected in widespread reports of violence against teachers all around Virginia, especially in school districts where “progressive” ideology is dominant. Abigail Zwerner, victim of the six-year-old’s attack, may be the only Virginia school teacher to have been shot in recent years, but hers is no isolated instance of violence.

The grand jury report recounts three occasions in which Parker overlooked direct and specific warnings that the six-year-old might have brought a gun to school. The child had a history of violence and threats of violence, including walking up behind a seated teacher and putting her in a choke hold. On the day of the shooting, children reported that the boy bragged about having a gun. Zwerner had warned her that the child was in a violent mood. A guidance counselor had asked to search the child but was told to hold off. 

The grand jury report is very informative and full of righteous indignation. What even that report does not do is inquire into the assistant principal’s state of mind. What was Parker thinking?!?!?! What could have impelled her to ignore the warning signs?

“Dr. Parker did not respond,” the grand jury wrote. “Dr. Parker did not look away from her computer screen.”

Wait, what? Dr. Parker? The assistant principal had a PhD? That’s the first clue.

Where did Parker earn her PhD? What did she study? What was her dissertation topic? What ideology did she imbibe? Did she embrace the psychobabble that substitutes therapy for setting clear boundaries and enforcing them? Did she absorb the ideology of intersectional oppression so prevalent in education schools today?

Perhaps more important, what role did the PhD play in Parker’s advancement to a fairly high administrative post? What practical value did the degree add to her skillset as an administrator? Did Newport News Public Schools count the PhD credential as a criterion for promotion? In theory, PhDs might provide educators with valuable knowledge and skills that help them manage a school. Is that what Virginia’s education schools emphasize these days, or are they refashioning teachers and administrators as agents of social justice? What do school districts look for in an assistant principal? Do they value practical skill sets, or do they reward PhDs indiscriminately?

The report described the school’s post-shooting response as “chaos.” After the shooting a receptionist ordered a lockdown. Parker and the principal, Briana Foster Newton, went into their offices and shut their doors. Let me repeat that for emphasis. THEY SHUT THEIR DOORS! Parents found out about the shooting from news reports and social media. Notifications from the school came hours later.

When law enforcement began investigating the incident, the shooter’s disciplinary files went missing. When one of the files was handed in by a district-level official, it included none of the child’s disciplinary records, such as documentation of the choking incident. The other file was never found.

It gets worse.

A picture emerges of a system utterly incapable of dealing with a child with severe emotional problems. The following comes from the Grand Jury report.

On September 27, 2021 Ms. White was concluding breakfast with the students when the child went to dump his breakfast in the hallway trash can and never returned. Ms. White went to search for him and found him with the security guard. When Ms. White tried to take his hand and bring him back to class the child hit Ms. White and yelled, ”No! I don’t want to go back to class.” The child then aggressively twisted and pulled down on the security guard’s wrist. Due to his behavior the security guard took the child to Dr. Parker while Ms. White returned to class.

Please notice: an elementary school needs a security guard. AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL! Not because of outsiders. Because of the students!

A teacher’s description of another incident shows the impact this has on order in the classroom.

Around 10:20, he had his mask off and had pulled his chair to the front of a classmate’s desk and was leaning over it at the classmate with his mask off. I went over and moved the chair back slowly to give him time to stand so that I could return the seat to his desk up front. He grabbed the chair legs and leaned down to the floor to drag me down. I brought the chair up front and sat on it, continuing to teach as I went. He stood behind me, put both forearms across the front of my throat and pulled back and down hard. I felt strangled.

Can you see what happened here? The teacher did not even try to discipline the child. She tried to teach around him! In progressive school districts, every child has the right to be mainstreamed so they can learn. Do the child’s classmates have a right to learn?

It gets worse.

After “a couple of hours” the child was returned to class! What does a child have to do — other than shoot a teacher — to warrant disciplinary action? Has this child received any discipline from parents, teachers, administrators — anyone, ever?

The institutional bureaucratic response to such incidents is to fill out a “Functional Behavioral Assessment” or a “Behavioral Intervention Plan.” This is part of the “social-emotional learning” and “restorative justice” disciplinary regime foisted on schools over the past decade. At Richneck, neither action was performed.

The atmosphere was lax, to say the least. Other routine safety precautions were neglected. Visitors wanting to gain admittance were supposed to buzz the front office. That system had been broken for weeks before the shooting incident. Parents had to pound on the door to gain admittance. The school also had failed to perform required lockdown drills.

Rather than being transferred to an environment with people capable of dealing with his anger-management issues, the child was kept at Richneck. There is no documentation that he ever graduated from Kindergarten in Chicago where he had briefly moved with his mother the previous school year. He had fallen behind other students in reading, which no doubt contributed to his frustration and poor behavior. He used profanity toward teachers. He once choked another child. The institutional response was to put him on ADHD medication and give him special tutoring sessions. He was given other special accommodations, such as being allowed to come to school late and leave early. His mother or father sometimes sat with him.

Parents were never informed of the child’s potential danger to others.

Two days before the shooting, the child took Zwerner’s phone off the table and smashed it to the ground. When removed from the class after that incident, he told Zwerner, “I’m never coming back to your room again, you bitch.” Removed to a different class, he repeatedly pinched the teacher and said, “I can do this and will.”

He was suspended for one day.

The day after he returned, he brought his gun with him.

The grand jury report documents the bureaucratic process for dealing with disciplinary incidents — a process that administrators didn’t always bother to engage with.

When a student acted up or misbehaved in class in a “minor” way the teacher would give two warnings. After two warnings the teacher would write up a “think sheet.” After three “think sheets” the teacher would submit a “mini referral” which was a google form that was sent to administration. The “mini-referrals” did not go into Synergy, the system-wide database used by [Newport News Public Schools]. After 3 “mini-referrals” the behavior was submitted and recorded in the Synergy database. Although not inputted directly into Synergy the “mini-referrals” should have been placed in the student’s physical file. However, the records indicate that this did not occur.

The testimony by Dr. Parrott was that if the student acted in a way that was a “major” behavioral incident the “mini-referral” system could just be skipped and it would be documented straight into Synergy. The purpose behind this system was apparently to keep “minor” incidents off a student’s record.

For “major” incidents, the mini-referral process could be skipped. But teachers received no instruction on how to differentiate between the two. “Due to its confusing nature,” the report noted, “there appeared to be a lack of follow through on proper disciplinary issues for students.”

School districts keep track of disciplinary issues for every school, and forward the data to the Virginia Department of Education to compile in a statewide report. If Richneck is at all representative, the data are worthless. Educators under-report incidents because racial disparities in disciplinary statistics are deemed evidence of institutional racism. As a consequence, school districts are flying blind, and so is the state.

After Zwerner’s shooting and the massive publicity surrounding it, Newport News has cleaned up its act in some ways. But it’s not clear from the grand jury report if the system for reporting disciplinary issues has changed at all. Every school board member should ask how statistics are reported in their district… but nobody will.

Social-emotional learning, restorative justice, and the therapeutic approach to school discipline are a disaster, and nobody is talking about it. This educational catastrophe is destined to continue.