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W&M law professor says charges against school administrators become more common as number of school shootings rise

Photo via Shutterstock
Photo via Shutterstock


Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn said he wasn’t considering legal precedent when his office convened a grand jury that ultimately charged the former Richneck Elementary assistant principal for felony child neglect for her actions leading up to a first-grader shooting his teacher in 2023.

Ebony Parker ignored several explicit warnings from teachers that the child had a gun before he shot his teacher, Abby Zwerner, says the grand jury report, released this week. Parker was charged with eight counts of felony child neglect.

As far as Gwynn knows, the city has never charged a school administrator under similar circumstances.

“I simply think about this as us doing our jobs,” he said. “And so whether it has any precedent or not is not really relevant to what we do and it has no bearing on any decision we make.”

In other parts of the country, other adults have been charged in relation to school shootings, including the parents of a school shooter in Michigan who were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and a Florida deputy who was charged and then acquitted for failing to act during the 2018 Parkland shooting.

WHRO’s Ryan Murphy spoke with William & Mary law professor Jeff Bellin about charging adults for school shootings committed by children.

This interview was edited to length and clarity.


Ryan Murphy: We've started seeing a rise in charges for adults and school shootings in the last few years. What's changed? 

Jeff Bellin: Typically what prosecutors do is they're bringing the kind of charges that they're used to so there's a lot of similar cases that are floating through prosecutors offices all over the country. 

It takes someone somewhere to say, hey, you know, I've got a new idea or a new kind of legal theory and bring a charge, that gets a lot of attention, like some of these cases. And once that happens, then other prosecutors when they encounter similar situations, are aware of it. Also, courts are more receptive, because it's happened somewhere. Before, it's not usually the kind of thing you want, as a prosecutor or a judge to be using a legal theory that no one has used before, right. But as these cases become more common, they kind of build on each other. And so it's easier to bring a case that someone has already brought. Part of it is, unfortunately, there just are more of these cases. Now the more of these shootings, and the more shootings there are, the more situations are going to arise where one of the contributions to the shooting is someone else, not the shooter, not being careful enough about whether someone has access to a gun,

R.M: The Newport News shooting appears to be the first time in Virginia a school official has been charged with failing to take action to stop a shooting before it happens. What kind of precedent does this set?

J.B: The challenge legally here is it isn't the case that everyone is on the hook for preventing shootings, you have to identify someone who has a special obligation to do so. And so that's what the prosecutors are looking for. Is there some person separate from everyone else who might have noticed the warning signs who had a special obligation to step in, to take action to make the shooting less likely. And then you have to find the facts that support that they should have, right? It's very hard job. 

In these circumstances where you have someone who's showing … these warning signs - because a lot of the times people are doing things that might be frightening, but they're not going to lead to a school shooting - so the administrators have to balance being too aggressive with being not aggressive enough. What a prosecutor has to think about is not to criminalize something that all school administrators might be guilty of: not stepping in more aggressively. 

If you do prosecute someone for not taking steps in a certain situation, other school administrators are going to notice that and that puts a lot of pressure on them to step in. And then if, on the flip side, if you're stepping in too soon, you're getting sued civilly or getting in trouble with other law enforcement agencies, you put the administrators in an impossible position. 

So what the prosecutors have to look for is something unusual about this circumstance where they can say, “This person had a special obligation to step in. And these facts differentiate them from every other administrator where it was a difficult choice and made it so clear that they had to step in that rises to the level of criminal responsibility.”

R.M: What's the legal community saying when they talk about this strategy? 

J.B: People generally are supportive of the idea that we want to do whatever we can to stop these kinds of shootings, right, like whatever might help people are willing to do. And so then the question becomes, well, is this something that is likely to reduce the number of school shootings?

Is prosecuting parents or school officials likely to reduce the number of school shootings? And there just isn't evidence that that's true, that this will stop school shootings. It starts to look like officials who are facing a lot of pressure to do something to stop school shootings [are] picking the easiest target, picking someone to blame for the school shooting, but not necessarily finding a way to actually stop school shootings from happening.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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