Educational Inequalities Towards Disabilities


Joseph Abrahantes

As cases of students with mental disabilities committing acts of violence are revealed, it brings into question what role does the school system play in aiding those with mental illness?

In almost every facet of their lives, disabled students suffer stigma, low expectations and marginalization, and school is no exception. Across the United States, only 65 percent of students in special education graduate from high school, a stark contrast from the 86 percent of able students. The Individual with Disabilities Education Act was enacted in 1975 with the purpose of providing free, appropriate and public education made available to children with disabilities. However, schools and their administrators might not recognize the special attention their disabled students rightly deserved simply due to ignorance and a lack of respect.

Immediately following the appalling incident that took place on Jan. 6, information on the child, family and victim was limited. As more statements and details have been released, they lead one to wonder: was this incident truly unforeseen? Or did the school administration downplay the child’s clear signs of being mentally unwell until something terrible happened as a result?

Having been previously diagnosed with an acute disability, the boy was placed under a care plan at school that ensured his special needs were met. This plan included his mother and father accompanying him to school everyday. The week of the incident was the first week that this regular protocol was not followed. Not only should this have been a cause for alarm, but the countless signs and warnings he gave prior to the shooting should have raised major red flags to the school administration. 

“I do think it was primarily the school’s fault if they knew that the child had a gun and they still chose not to take action. They really should have been more attentive, especially if they knew that the kid had an acute disorder and they should have been more educated on the possible risks,” junior Ava Cosgrove said.

Just two days before, the six-year-old showed the first sign of being physically aggressive toward his teacher, Ms. Zwerner. He grabbed her phone and slammed it, breaking it and earning himself a one-day suspension. 

The morning of the shooting, Ms. Zwerner noticed that the boy’s behavior was off and that he seemed more violent than usual, which she reported to the Assistant Principal, Ebony Parker. He reportedly threatened to beat up a younger student and made faces at the security officer. Three employees of the school warned in separate occurrences between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. that they had believed the child had had a gun. One of the teachers had reported the child’s threat to shoot another student to whom he had shown the gun to at recess. The school had no reaction, and rather urged the teachers to ignore the behavior until the end of the day. As the so-called leaders of an elementary school, the administration failed to carry through with their responsibility, recklessly turning a blind eye to the situation and putting students and teachers’ lives on the line. Just hours later, Abby Zwerner suffered the consequences when she was shot by the boy as she was sitting down in her first-grade classroom.  

I think it was just irresponsible on the school’s part, and I think they should have taken more action earlier, especially because they had multiple warnings. It is almost completely the school administration’s fault. I also think it is fair that the victim is threatening to sue the school system

— Yara Korse

According to a statement released last week provided by the family’s attorney, James Ellenson, the mother’s legally purchased 9 mm Taurus firearm was said to be “secured”. How secure could the gun be that a six-year-old child was able to take it to school for an entire day and commit such horrid actions? The day of the incident was part of the first week that the child’s parents did not accompany him to school.

“I think the child deserves more help because he has disabilities. I also think the incident was partially due to the school’s poor response; they should have taken the warning more seriously. But at the same time, I still feel that it is partially the parent’s fault for allowing the kid access to the gun, even if they say it was secure,” freshman Andres Amador said. 

The Newport News school system’s superintendent, George Parker III, claimed at a town hall meeting that the child had arrived at school late, having had his backpack checked at sign-in. In an NBC News video, he later revealed that at least one school administrator was notified of a possible weapon, a paltry number. However, the Newport News Police Department was not notified until after the 25-year-old teacher had already been shot and seriously injured in her hand and chest. 

Trying to excuse the administration’s inattentiveness, the school district secured funding for 90 metal detectors to be placed upon all district schools, including one present at Newport News Elementary School. 

Justly, Parker was fired from his job on Wednesday night after a school board meeting that ruled 5-1. His separation was made effective on Feb. 1.  

“I mean, clearly there were telltale signals that he was up to no good. And I think that prevention is very important, because a lot of people like to take action and, stop the problems while they’re happening, which is clearly what the administration should have been doing,” freshman Beatrice Stampino-Strain said. 

Despite their countless opportunities, administration failed to recognize and responsibly act upon the imminent danger reported. They downplayed the seriousness of the boy’s disabilities and refused to give him the proper help he so clearly needed. Multiple atrocities could have been so easily avoided, had the school system been properly and willingly prepared to handle a child with disabilities.