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Experts say 'missteps' were likely in how school addressed special needs of Richneck student

Nour Habib, Daily Press on

Published in News & Features

When first grade teacher Abigail Zwerner was shot by her 6-year-old student in the middle of a lesson on Jan. 6, it left the Newport News community — and the nation — in shock.

In the wake of that shooting at Richneck Elementary, much has been said about the heightened student behavior problems Newport News schools have experienced in the past several years. Teachers and community members have lamented the lack of administrative support in dealing with and disciplining students for disruptive and dangerous behaviors.

But special education advocates across the state say it’s also important to note that the school division likely failed to provide the 6-year-old student the supports and services he needed up to that point.

An attorney for the child’s family said the boy has “an acute disability,” and that, as part of a specialized “care plan,” his parents had been attending school with him every day until the week of the shooting.

Special education is governed by a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. Under the act, students can be eligible for special education services if they fall in one of 13 categories. One is for students who have emotional disabilities, which can include behavior disorders.

Although it is unclear if the boy had a disability that qualified him for an individualized education plan, or IEP, many special education experts have called the accommodation of a parent in the classroom a “red flag.” They say it indicates significant behavior concerns that likely called for additional support.


Federal privacy laws prevent the school division from disclosing whether the student was evaluated or deemed eligible for special services, but special education advocates say the statement from the student’s family raises questions about what was being done to support him.

Cheryl Poe is the executive director of a Virginia Beach-based nonprofit called Advocating 4 Kids, which provides special education advocacy services to parents in Hampton Roads and across the country. She’s worked in the special education arena for more than 20 years.

Poe said school divisions are not only required to provide services to students who have special needs, but — through an IDEA clause referred to as Child Find — they also are required to identify and evaluate those children.

“Child Find means that a school district has a responsibility to seek out, locate, identify, evaluate and provide services to students who have disabilities or developmental delays,” she said.


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