PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – In the five weeks since the shooting at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, parents, educators, and police are all wondering how to prevent such an alarming incident from ever happening again.
Police say a 6-year-old student shot his first grade teacher, Abby Zwerner, during class on Jan. 6. She was treated for wounds to her hand and chest and is now recovering at home.
Shockingly enough – this has happened before, 23 years ago near Flint, Mich. and unlike Richneck, it ended not just with someone wounded, but someone dead.
10 On Your Side recently interviewed the former Genesee County, Mich. prosecuting attorney who had to decide what to do with a 6-year-old who had just shot and killed his classmate in first grade.
Arthur Busch says he has followed school shootings ever since the one at Buell Elementary School in his Michigan community on February 29, 2000. When he heard about a 6-year-old involved in shooting his teacher last month in Newport News, it recalled that tragic day 23 years ago.
“I just was very upset. It brought back all the emotion of that time,” Busch said.
The investigation of the little boy uncovered a shattered family background.
The boy’s father was in jail, and his mother would commute each day to work as a waitress near Detroit, so she would be away from the home most of the time. His parents sent him to live with his uncle, a known drug dealer.
“He grew up in what I call a flop house. He lived in a drug house basically with his uncle and whoever his uncle invited over,” Busch said.
Busch says the .32 caliber semiautomatic was easy to find, especially for a 6-year-old with a sweet tooth.
“The pistol was in a shoebox with some candies and some coins, and it was on a bed,” Busch said.
According to reports, he was mad that Kayla wouldn’t let him kiss her on the playground the day before. It was now up to Busch – what to do with a 6-year-old shooter? He interviewed the Michigan first grader.
“I sat across from him and he was coloring. He loved to color,” Busch said. “We both sat on little people chairs.”
By now it was late March. “He was drawing pictures of the Easter Bunny. He started smiling at me and I realized that he didn’t have two front teeth. And then we started talking about the tooth fairy,” Busch recalled. “This kid believed in all that stuff. He was not of an age of understanding.”
“He found the gun and started twirling it on his finger like Wyatt Earp or something out of a Western movie, which indicated that he probably saw that gun as a toy, I don’t think, at that age, they really get that this is a deadly weapon. You can’t prosecute a child who simply is unable to process mentally the thoughts of committing a crime.”
But you can prosecute an adult. In this case, it was the uncle’s roommate who owned the gun.
Busch charged him with involuntary manslaughter. As part of a plea deal, he was out of prison after two and a half years.
The boy’s father died later in prison, but in the immediate aftermath he wanted to cash in on the trauma and death surrounding two 6 year olds.
“The father was an interesting character because he wanted to make books and movies about this incident with his child.”
The 6-year-old boy is now a 29-year-old man. He was involved in a break in at 18, but with no known serious criminal history as an adult.
Members of Kayla’s family are on opposite ends of the forgiveness spectrum.
“I’ll never forgive the guy,” Kayla’s father told WOOD-TV, WAVY’s sister station in Grand Rapids, for a 20-year retrospective three years ago.
But Kayla’s sister said just the opposite. “I forgive him and I really hope he’s doing something with his life,” she told WOOD-TV.
Watch coverage from WOOD-TV of the shooting in 2000
Kayla’s mother Veronica McQueen advocated for stronger gun laws – and was mentioned in First Lady Hillary Clinton’s announcement for the Million Mom March. It was the largest protest against gun violence to that point.
But in the years since Parkland and Uvalde were just a few of the many K-12 school shootings.
According to a data base from Security.org – 367 people have been killed, another 1,105 were hurt since Kayla was killed in her classroom.
McQueen never recovered from losing her beloved Kayla, and took her own life in 2017.
For Busch, the shooting at Richneck Elementary was an echo from 23 years ago. It brought back not just the pain, but the lessons learned.
“You really have to have a community conversation that goes deep. Looking for scapegoats right away is a cheap way to look at it. It wasn’t the kid. It’s the gun. So the question is why do we have so many guns in America? And why are we so violent? Newport News needs to answer that question first.”
But the former prosecutor believes that what a child at age 6 does, no matter how tragic, does not need to define him forever.
“Here in America we have this perverted idea that if a kid does something wrong at some young age, that they can never be rehabilitated, which is a goofy idea really,” Busch said.