Virginia parents’ fears about gun violence in schools, already top of mind, have been intensified by two school shootings in the commonwealth this year — one at Newport News in January and one on Thursday in the parking lot of George Wythe High School in Richmond.
The recent violence has area parents on edge.
If Henrico County mom Jamie Bass drives past her two kids’ schools during the day, she worries when she sees small details awry, like a police car parked out front, or a door being propped open.
“Something that I had always heard but didn’t understand until I was a parent is that when we enroll our kids in school, we are trusting schools with the physical safety of our children for a huge portion of the day,” Bass said.
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Amid heightened concerns, local school divisions are taking varied approaches to school safety. In Henrico County, for example, the school division piloted metal detectors starting in February at some schools to study the effectiveness.
Bass is part of an increasingly worried group of parents across the nation. A CBS News poll conducted this month shows that American parents’ concern about gun violence is higher than it was last summer.
This month, 77 percent of parents are at least somewhat concerned about the possibility of gun violence at their children’s school, according to the poll, while 72 percent of parents had the same concern last year.
About 61 percent of parents of school-age children reported this month that their children worry about gun violence at school, either “a lot” or “sometimes.”
Days after a 6-year-old student fired a single round and intentionally shot his teacher Jan. 6 at Richneck Elementary in Newport News, Colleen Renthrope, mother of a 7-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son in the school system, was among parents pouring out their anguish at a meeting of the Newport News School Board.
“There’s no single answer to this abhorrent situation that our kids, teachers and parents find ourselves in daily,” Renthrope said. “I send my kids to school and find myself praying to God that they will return home safely.”
Around the same time that the 6-year-old shot teacher Abigail Zwerner in Newport News, another teacher across the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel faced threats of gun violence from students. She said the school administration failed to act, the same way that school administration reportedly failed to protect the teacher in Newport News.
Kelley Green, a third-grade teacher in Virginia Beach, said she reported a verbal threat of gun violence from a student immediately after it happened, but said she did not hear back from school administration until four hours after school had ended.
“I still had to sit in the office with that same student who had threatened me that day with an AK-47,” Green said. (The student did not have a gun.)
“When the situation at Richneck Elementary occurred, it was weeks after numerous incidents of teachers, myself included, reporting unsafe scenarios, and nothing being done.”
Green has faced several threats and acts of violence during her teaching career. Within her first few weeks of her first teaching job, a student punched Green in the stomach. Earlier this school year, a parent came into school and struck her, she said.
Next year, Green will join a new school in Virginia Beach.
“I was allowed to be assaulted. After reporting it for 17 days and saying that I don’t feel safe, nothing was done,” she said. “I was told that, ‘Well, you were hit because that was your fault.’ That’s when I knew I kind of had to go.”
Green said recent school shootings across the U.S. have prompted school division officials to hold faculty meetings and reassure teachers that they are safe. But the officials have not taken any actions to make teachers safe, she said.
“We are someone’s child as well,” Green said. “We deserve to be able to go home to our families and our parents and our kids and our pets in order to do what we love the next day.”
Green plans to push for better policies in her school division to protect teachers.
She proposes that teachers should be given personal leave to go home and recover if they have been physically or mentally assaulted by students or others. The proposal also says parents who threaten teachers should be banned from the school, and threat assessments should be mandatory.
She said she is pushing for things that should be the bare minimum in order to make a better environment for teachers and students.
“I love those kids, and I love being able to make an impact,” Green said.
“As many headaches and heartaches as they give, they’ve given more love. They deserve so much better.”
Alarming, but uncommon
Although school shootings and parents’ worries about them are on the rise, school gun violence remains uncommon.
“Despite the alarming scariness of school shootings and, despite the fact that they have increased in recent years and the terrible nature of them, they’re still an extremely rare event and extremely unlikely to happen in any individual school,” said Jeff Temple, a professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch who studies adolescent violence.
“For many people, a large number of our kids, school is the safest place that they can be.”
Gun violence overtook automobile accidents as the leading cause of youth deaths in the U.S. as of 2020. But less than one percent of youth gun deaths each year happen in schools, and even fewer are from mass shootings in schools.
Although school shootings are statistically rare, they are on the rise. Last year, more school shootings took place in the U.S. (46) than in any year since at least 1999, when 15 were killed at Columbine High School in suburban Denver, according to a Washington Post database.
“School shootings are not only here to stay, but they’re probably going to get worse before they get better in terms of frequency and severity,” Temple said. “We’re going to have a day in the not too distant future where we’re going to have two schools have mass shootings on the same day. That will happen, just statistically speaking.”
Moms Demand Action is a national nonprofit organization with localized groups of parents who are advocating for what they term “common-sense” gun laws to make schools safer.
Membership for the Richmond chapter has soared in the wake of the high-profile school shootings March 27 at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, in which a former student killed three 9-year-olds and three adults — and Jan. 6 in Newport News. It was largely dormant during the depths of the pandemic when parents were hunkered down, focused on their kids’ online learning.
Last year, the group’s membership snowballed.
“It wasn’t until after the Uvalde (Texas) shooting” in May 2022, in which a former student killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers, “that we have seen an enormous surge in interest in joining the movement,” said Kristin DuMont, a local co-lead for Richmond’s Moms Demand Action chapter. “Now we’ve had over 100 people join us in the last few weeks, really since the Nashville shooting.”
Aside from what it terms common-sense gun laws — like stricter background checks and mental health checks on gun purchases — the group pushes for practices and laws that would keep kids from having guns in the first place. It also wants parents to talk to children, educate and be mindful about guns.
School safety measures
Henrico County Public Schools Superintendent Amy Cashwell said the school system is constantly talking about safety and how to upgrade or improve it.
Within the past five years or so, the county’s schools have seen visible changes to safety features. Security vestibules where visitors can do school business without coming into the school were added, while a buzz-in system keeps people from entering schools without speaking to someone in a front office.
Cashwell said the overall goal of the school district’s security systems is to have a layered approach that catches all types of gun violence, from potential mass shootings to students who bring guns into school.
The school division has a host of physical security devices like visitor identification scanners, newly upgraded camera systems and KnoxBoxes — wall-mounted safes that hold keys so first responders can access a building. The school system just concluded a study testing metal detectors and weapons scanners at three of its schools.
Cashwell said that beyond the need for physical protections at schools is the importance that each school community plays in reporting problems that might involve students.
“It’s been public that we’ve had some weapons on our campus, at our high schools specifically,” Cashwell said. “Without picking any one of them out, in almost every instance, a student reported that they believed another student had a weapon on their person either through anonymous alerts or to a trusted adult directly.”
HCPS also has an internal team that focuses solely on its school safety plans, which are vetted annually by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services’ school safety audit program. Cashwell said the system is consistently working to upgrade those plans based on expert feedback.
Student mental health
Despite the effort, coordination and resources, those best-laid school security plans have not proven entirely perfect.
Joshua M. Langberg, a parent of a student at Holman Middle School in Henrico, said the safety measures themselves can be dangerous for children.
He said Holman had experienced two gun-related events over the past couple of months. In the second, which the school said “appeared” to be a prank, police burst into his daughter’s classroom during a lock-and-hide drill with their guns drawn, “red laser dots leveled at all around the room.”
“I understand that given all that’s going on in the world, we have to focus on and prioritize school safety but, as a parent, I feel the pendulum has swung too far and that we’ve forgotten that our core mission at schools is child development and well-being,” Langberg said.
“That’s why we send our children to school. If we focus on safety too much, we will not be able to meet our core mission.”
Langberg is a licensed child psychologist in Virginia and New Jersey, having worked for Virginia Commonwealth University for 11 years. He says his daughter has been showing signs of PTSD since the incident that drew law enforcement.
“This is not normal. This is stuff that we typically don’t think about it unless people are in war situations,” Langberg said. “Can we at least acknowledge that some of the safety procedures we’ve put into place are literally causing our children potential PTSD, which is a lifelong debilitating condition — and I want to make sure that side of the discussion doesn’t get left.”
Data compiled by Everytown, a national gun safety nonprofit, found that 52% of school campus shootings come from arguments that escalate, robberies or parking lot altercations. The compilation found that less than 1% of school gunfire incidents were done with the intent to commit a mass shooting.
Anne Forrester, a middle school teacher in Richmond Public Schools, said the answer is not hardening schools or more discipline — it is more mental health supports for students.
“I don’t think our schools have become any more or less safe (over the past few years). I think that our students’ mental health has declined,” Forrester said. “It’s not that I’m not concerned about violence, but I think what’s causing violence amongst our students is unmet mental health needs.”
The problem, she said, is that students come to school with unprocessed and unresolved trauma. It stems from violence in their households and their communities, she said.
“In the news, you see this child brought a weapon to school, or this child assaulted someone, or this child made a threat. At the end of the day, there were teachers and parents and other students who knew that child and probably cared about that child, and knew that child as someone who was suffering, as someone who needed a lot of help. There’s more to it than ‘this kid was bad,’ ” Forrester said.
“Kids aren’t bad. People make bad choices, people get desperate in bad circumstances, especially kids. As a teacher, I have to believe that they can change if they just get the help they need.”
Anna Bryson (804) 649-6945
Sean Jones (804) 649-6911
“Despite the alarming scariness of school shootings, and despite the fact that they have increased in recent years and the terrible nature of them, they're still an extremely rare event and extremely unlikely to happen in any individual school."
— Jeff Temple, University of Texas Medical Branch professor and psychologist