NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — It's a long-standing conversation within the Hampton Roads community on how to address school safety.
More than a week after police say a 6-year-old boy shot his first-grade teacher, Abby Zwerner, at Richneck Elementary, Virginia state and local activists came together to discuss solutions for the city.
In a roundtable discussion with Congressman Bobby Scott and community activists, mental and behavioral health came to the center of the table.
State and national researchers weighed in on the discussion, saying physical barriers like metal detectors and clear book bags won't prevent gun violence from entering the minds of young children.
"That's really the sad truth in all of this...is that we can't undo the harm that was already caused," said Jim Freeman, the director of the Social Movement Support Lab.
Freeman started off his presentation by showing the Newport News city budget for this year. He pointed out the fact that city leaders had more than twice the funding in the criminal justice system than they did in mental and welfare services.
"If we want our children to be healthy, non-violent individuals, we need to create a healthy and non-violent environment for them," said Freeman.
Freeman also expressed concern over the push to add multiple layers of strict security to schools, such as cameras, metal detectors and random searches. He said it would add a layer of stress to the students and make them feel like they are in a prison, rather than a school.
Congressman Scott said the research presented by Freeman and University of Virginia psychologists proves the need to manage city funding to help better guide students.
"If you focus on education, focus on the emotional well-being of the child, focus on the school atmosphere, rewarding good behavior...the metal detectors have been studied, school resource officers have been studied...they have not been effective in promoting school safety," said Congressman Scott.
Mental health experts with the Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters were also in attendance at the roundtable discussion. One of the directors called their child mental health services "under-resourced and under-funded" in Virginia.
Newport News Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. George Parker, said they have the programs available for students, but they need counselors and supervisors to take on the responsibilities.
"We've expanded youth development activities in our division. We're expanding to middle school sports...and that allows us to create a better culture in our middle schools, which will impact school safety down the road," said Parker. "I've never been a strong component of making schools look like prisons. I've never been a strong component of criminalizing students in any way."
Newport News mother, Jeanette Richardson, spoke up during the roundtable discussion to share her personal story with gun violence.
In 2004, she said her older son, Patrick, confronted a group of teenagers causing noise outside the front of his family's home. She said the teens beat him and he ended up getting shot and died right in front of his home.
"My husband held my son while he died in his arms," Richardson told Congressman Scott and the rest of the room. "My son died just 20 feet away from my front door."
From her front yard to a school shooting within her city, Richardson said she fought for solutions within the school system and the community for roughly 20 years since her son's passing. She said while metal detectors may create a barrier for certain situations, she wants to see more people get involved, including parents.
"But my question to the parents is, do we have metal detectors on the buses? Do we have metal detectors in their cars when dropping kids off at school?" said Richardson. "We can't prevent another tragedy unless we come together as a whole community and understand how important this issue is of keeping guns out of the hands of children that shouldn't have them...any age shouldn't have them."