By the time a 6-year-old shot his teacher at a Virginia elementary school, the system had already failed him. But it is not a story unique to one child or even one state.
The unidentified child has an “acute disability,” according to his family, and like 7 million other students in the U.S., he receives an education plan designed for students with disabilities, according to the family’s lawyer.
Those education plans, while well-intentioned and legally binding, are often at the center of cases where U.S. schools fail to abide by them.
Media reports have highlighted worries about the Newport News child’s behavior before the shooting happened, and whether disability-related educational needs were addressed. The case has resonated for many as an unthinkable example of school violence.
“Our heart goes out to our son’s teacher and we pray for her healing in the aftermath of such an unimaginable tragedy as she selflessly served our son and the children in the school,” the child’s family said in a statement.
Across the nation, the chain of events in Newport News is a glimpse into a larger problem with special education. Teacher shortages, staff untrained in best practices, and poorly implemented special education plans can all lead to escalating violent behavior and other serious consequences in situations where educators, students and parents face ambiguous directives from school administrators and lawmakers.
The first grader in Newport News used his mother’s gun to shoot Abigail Zwerner in a first-grade classroom. The 25-year-old teacher is recovering from life-threatening injuries in a shooting that has drawn questions about whether fundamental changes are needed.
Repercussions of schools not serving students with disabilities are playing out in special education classrooms from Florida to California, sometimes with violent results:
• In Arizona, a mother filed a federal complaint this month, saying her daughter’s needs were ignored to harmful levels. That resulted in her child becoming increasingly agitated and ultimately violent toward her teachers after repeated suspensions and lack of intervention.
• A federal judge in Wisconsin awarded $260,000 in 2020 to a mother whose son, who has attention deficit disorder, anxiety, dyslexia and other disabilities, left public school because she claimed his high school teachers were completing assignments for him, lying about his progress and passing him in classes when he hadn’t done the work.
• A class action lawsuit filed in September against the Fairfax County School Board, one of the largest school systems in the nation, alleges violations of the rights of disabled students. Additionally, in a separate case, the same school system announced it banned the practice of secluding students; documents obtained by American University Radio revealed hundreds of cases where children as young as 6 were restrained or put in seclusion in rooms with no windows.
Amid the cries for change comes worry that cracking down on students with challenging behavior can disproportionately punish disabled students, experts say.
“Students – who often are students with disabilities – are put on a track of essentially exclusion,” says Kimberly Knackstedt, a former special education teacher and current co-director of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative at the Century Foundation. “We start to see them excluded at higher rates. Suspension, expulsion rates go up.”
Such policies can particularly impact Black and students of color, who already face disproportionate rates of punishment, advocates say.
Few would advocate removing all disciplinary measures, but giving teachers tools other than suspension and expulsion is an important step, they say.
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What is an IEP?
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), first passed under a different name in 1975, guaranteed that children with disabilities have the right to what’s known as a “free appropriate public education,” or FAPE.
Students with disabilities in the pre-IDEA era could be denied access to public school. They were at times institutionalized in poor conditions or kept home, excluded from education altogether.
To accommodate the educational needs of students with disabilities — ranging from mental illnesses to intellectual disabilities to learning disabilities like dyslexia — schools have to provide Individualized Education Program plans.
IEPs are developed to meet the specific, individual needs of students who require special education services, and ensure that kids are educated in the “least restrictive environment” possible.
The lawsuit filed in Wisconsin alleged in court papers that “It is not enough that an IEP be adequately written; it must also be adequately implemented. A material failure to implement an IEP violates” the federal disabilities act.
Student who shot teacher had a history of educational needs
The 6-year-old who shot Zwerner had an IEP, James S. Ellenson, a lawyer representing his family, told the Associated Press.
The family said in the statement that part of his care plan involved his parents attending school with him and accompanying him to class every day, and the week of the shooting, the parents hadn’t done that.
“We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives,” the family said.
Both Knackstedt and Malhar Shah, staff attorney at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, said it was highly unusual that parents would be accompanying a child to class rather than that role falling to staff members provided and trained by the school district.
Michelle Price, a spokesperson for Newport News schools, said she could not disclose more details about the 6-year-old due to privacy laws protecting students, and both Ellenson and the attorney representing Zwerner, Diane Toscano, declined to comment further.
But Knackstedt said even without knowing more details, the incident speaks to larger challenges happening in special education.
Reporting from the Washington Post indicated Richneck Elementary wasn’t adequately meeting the disability-related educational needs of the 6-year-old who shot his teacher. According to the Post, citing anonymous staff and messages obtained, the lead special education teacher was overloaded with cases.
The Post reported staff had previously raised concerns about the student’s behavior, including that he had made threats to teachers before.
On the day of the shooting, Zwerner’s attorney said the administration had been alerted multiple times the child may have had a gun, but, despite a search of his backpack that turned up nothing, did not take any further action.
SCHOOL WARNED OF WEAPON: School administrators ‘could not be bothered’ to heed warnings, lawyer says.
Knackstedt said something clearly went wrong at Richneck that day, but the time leading up to it is key to understanding how it happened.
“If we were able to intervene earlier, if the school had done something different, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” said Knackstedt.
Special education strapped for resources
A shortage of special education teachers and lack of training on important behavioral needs like de-escalation and positive supports are making it harder both for teachers to do their jobs and for children with disabilities to receive the education they are entitled to, Knackstedt said.
High teacher turnover rates can also cause instability in children’s routines, which depend on consistency.
“No wonder kids start to have relationship issues with their teachers,” said Knackstedt, who previously directed disability policy for the Domestic Policy Council in the Biden administration. “Evidence has shown relationship is the number one thing to support kids throughout the year.”
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Funding is also a huge problem, Shah said.
Despite Congress promising to fund up to 40% of the cost of special education when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed, Congress has never come close to that goal, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
The lack of resources plays out in school districts not prioritizing needed assessments and training that teachers sometimes push for, putting teachers in a really difficult position, Shah said.
“These things cost money, they take time, and so a lot of the time (school districts) don’t have the incentive to do them,” Shah said.
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Vicki Beatty, a Virginia-based advocate on behalf of parents and kids in special education, said she’s seen school districts with comparatively fewer resources invest in robust behavior management while more resourced districts do very little.
She said the problem she sees most often is schools developing inadequate IEPs that don’t address the student’s behavior, then expecting them to comply with codes of conduct without regard to their disabilities.
“If the child looks the wrong way, they’re suspended,” Beatty said.
When needs get ignored, struggling kids lash out, parents say
Children, especially those with disabilities that make regulating emotions more difficult, have “escalation cycles,” Knackstedt said. This is the process of a child becoming dysregulated and distressed, from the early warning signs when presented with a trigger to the escalated crisis point of their behavior to the aftermath and return to a regulated state.
If a child’s IEP isn’t being followed, the result can be disruptive behavior that isn’t necessarily within their control that can’t be fixed with punishment, Knackstedt said.
“When they start moving through their escalation cycle, they’re going to become unresponsive to requests from a teacher, because in their brain they actually cannot process the requests at some point,” she said.
A federal complaint filed by a mother in Gilbert, Arizona, describes a case in which she alleges her daughter’s IEP — Individualized Education Program — clearly spelled out methods of intervention for her child that were not followed , resulting in escalating problems and ultimately violence.
The child, whom USA TODAY is not naming because she is a minor whose parents requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the school district, has a rare developmental disability that often includes difficulty with emotional regulation, leading to meltdowns that can turn violent toward herself or others. She has a history of other medical issues, including a congenital heart defect, breathing issues and spinal surgeries.
She was suspended from her school in Chandler Unified School District last fall for five days because she hit a teacher in the eye, breaking the teacher’s glasses and drawing blood, and grabbed the face of a second adult, also breaking that person’s glasses, according to her suspension report.
The 13-year-old eighth grader now never wants to go to school anymore. She feels her teachers are mean to her, and often tells her mom, “Nobody helps me. I always get into trouble.”
It’s a sharp contrast from the child she was in previous years, her mother said. She used to love to go to school and was social with other kids, offering hugs and wanting to please her teachers.
The difference? In the past, her education and behavior plans were being followed; now, they’re not, says her mother, who provided USA TODAY with dozens of pages of documents chronicling her child’s educational record and disciplinary actions against her.
A spokesperson for Chandler Unified School District, Stephanie Ingersoll, noted in a statement that special education issues are being faced by school districts across the country. Ingersoll said privacy laws prevented comment on specific students.
“Chandler Unified School District is committed to the success of all students. We employ positive behavioral interventions and provide multi-tiered support systems to aid every CUSD student in achieving that success,” Ingersoll said.
The key for her, according to her mom, is to prevent escalation and stress, and to keep her engaged in her schoolwork. Prevention is a big focus of the educational plan that her family provided to USA TODAY, which includes guidelines like using a calm voice with her, providing clear directions and expectations, and using minimal eye contact. If prevention doesn’t work, the plan says adults should “grant her space.”
If she’s escalated, the plan directs adults to: “Remove your glasses, jewelry, or hair accessories immediately, for these are triggers to the behavior.”
Her mom, who recently filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, said the suspension unfairly punished her daughter for her disability.
“She’s literally being suspended because of a behavior that we already anticipated to happen and could have been prevented,” her mom said.
How schools can prevent violence
To prevent violence and other disrupting behavior, schools should be working toward preventing children from escalation, and should better train teachers on de-escalation techniques.
Shah said a common problem that leads to escalation of behavior is that schools don’t change their behavior plans when the interventions they’re using clearly aren’t working.
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“The more that you ignore disability-related behaviors, especially the ones that are destructive, the more that we’re just going to go down the slippery slope of the students engaging in that more and more,” Shah said.
If teachers at Richneck Elementary were raising concerns about the 6-year-old’s behavior, the school should have done training for staff on topics like de-escalation and mental health; implemented a behavior intervention plan; or developed new positive behavioral strategies, Knackstedt said.
Price, the Newport News district spokesperson, did not answer questions about what preventive measures were in place.
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Looking at school discipline differently
In the wake of the shooting, parents, school staff and other community members complained that staff member concerns weren’t taken seriously. Some said the school district had a misguided focus on keeping kids in classrooms even when they were aggressive to maintain attendance appearances.
Shah said removal and other punitive measures aren’t effective solutions because behavior in an escalated state in many cases is “involuntary,” and the result is that students can’t comprehend that the punishments are being meted out later to disincentivize them from the in-the-moment behavior.
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Joana Rigo, a daycare worker in Brooklyn, Michigan, recently pulled her sixth-grade son from in-person school after she said retaliation against him for his disability-related behavior got so bad, he would end up sitting in the hallway most of the day and stopped eating at school.
In an Office for Civil Rights complaint reviewed by USA TODAY, Rigo alleged the staff at Columbia Upper Elementary wasn’t letting her son take the breaks from class his IEP afforded him when he was overwhelmed. She said a school employee once grabbed his hand to hang up a school phone he was using to try and call Rigo, another accommodation he was supposed to get to help him cope. When he tried to self-advocate, he was labeled “disrespectful,” she said.
Pamela Campbell, Columbia School District superintendent, said in a statement to USA TODAY that the district denies Rigo’s allegations and is cooperating with an investigation into her complaint, but declined to comment further, citing privacy laws.
“The Columbia School District does not discriminate against students with disabilities and strives to provide a free appropriate public education too all eligible students as required by federal and state law,” Campbell said.
“What they are doing is wrong,” Rigo said through tears. “They are damaging the self-esteem and the mental wellness of a child who has not done wrong but is being blamed as a troublemaker.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
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