Inside the mind of a 6-year-old shooter (Insider)

January 17, 2023

The fear was palpable in the small town of Newport News, Virginia, on the afternoon of January 6 as reports rolled in of a shooting at Richneck Elementary School.

As the dust settled — the children all accounted for, the lone adult victim on her way to the hospital — the police identified an unlikely perpetrator: a 6-year-old boy, accused of deliberately shooting his first-grade teacher.

Officials said the boy, whom they’ve not named because of his age, shot Abigail Zwerner through her hand and into her upper chest as she taught a classroom of about 20 children. The officials said the boy brought a 9 mm Taurus firearm from his home and that his mother had purchased the weapon legally.

Steve Drew, the city’s police chief, said at a news conference on Monday that as Zwerner taught the class, the boy pointed the firearm at her and fired one round. “The shooting was not accidental,” Drew said. “It was intentional.”

But what does “intentional” mean to a 6-year-old, whose brain is still in the earliest stages of development? Scientists told Insider that neurobiology indicates a child of that age doesn’t understand morality, consequences, or the law. They also suggested that instead of arrest, young offenders need rehabilitation — and courts are finally starting to listen.

A developing brain means young kids physically can’t make rational decisions

Arielle Baskin-Sommers, an associate professor of psychology and of psychiatry at Yale, told Insider that a single act of violence, however horrific, is not enough to merit a psychiatric diagnosis. While researchers have observed pathological traits in kids as young as 2, gun violence is correlated more with access to guns than mental illness.

At age 6, the brain’s emotional structures, known as the limbic system, are further along in development than its rational decision-making chambers, in the prefrontal cortex. Though the brain is already 90% developed in terms of size, many of the neural connections formed during early childhood will be eliminated and then replaced with stronger connections.

Throughout childhood and adolescence, the brain does its own version of a Marie Kondo cleanup: Connections that are repeatedly used are strengthened, while excessive synaptic links are eliminated.

“It’s really about learning how to cope with those emotions — having the experiences and the failures and an unconditionally loving environment, too — that helps us learn right from wrong,” BJ Casey, a professor of neuroscience at Barnard College, told Insider.

Most of this pruning happens by your early to mid-20s, though the brain is never completely done changing. By adulthood, we’re capable of reflecting on the past and weighing the consequences of an action. Young kids physically aren’t.

“When infants can’t walk and talk, we don’t think of that as deviant,” Casey said. “But by late childhood and adolescence, when they make a bad decision or engage in bad behavior, we call that deviant. We have to keep in mind that there’s continued development there, too.”

Toy Gun

Wilfredo Lee/AP

The law has only recently started recognizing brain development as a factor in crime

The Virginia police have described the 6-year-old’s actions as intentional — but science suggests the boy likely didn’t understand the full consequences of his actions.

Moral decision-making requires myriad cognitive abilities that are still developing during adolescence, Casey said. Children may struggle to grasp social norms and legal consequences while processing information about their environment, so they’re more likely to act out.

“If you just take the behavior alone, this kid showed an extreme form of aggressive behavior,” Baskin-Sommers said. “It’s really important to remember that despite this behavior seeming very calculated and planned out, it is immature compared to someone who is older.”

It’s only in the past decade that the highest court in the land has started recognizing how neuroscience and brain development affect criminal intent.

2012 amicus brief written by the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry highlighting the latest neuroimaging research helped convince the Supreme Court that life without parole was an unconstitutional mandatory sentence for anyone under 18.

Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged in the court’s opinion in another case involving youth in 2016 that “children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability.”

Developmental psychologists have established what’s known as the age-crime curve: Across racial and economic backgrounds, criminal behavior tends to peak during adolescence and decrease by the mid-to-late 20s.

“There’s so much potential for change, particularly during these early stages of development,” Casey said. “Neuroscience shows us throughout our life that our brain doesn’t stop changing.”

Child advocates say differences in brain development should inform criminal charges

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Kaia Rolle was 6 when the police arrested at her school in Florida in 2019. Courtesy of Meralyn Kirkland; Samantha Lee/Insider

The Virginia boy’s tender age makes his interactions with law enforcement an anomaly, but not unprecedented. In 2019, the police in Orlando, Florida, arrested a 6-year-old named Kaia Rolle at school after a temper tantrum, escorting her out of the building in restraints as she sobbed.

An analysis by USA Today published last year found more than 2,600 arrests in schools involving 5- to 9-year-olds from 2000 to 2019. An investigation published by the Center for Public Integrity in 2015 found that for years Virginia led the nation in sending students to courtrooms, adding that an outsized percentage of those students had learning disabilities.

There’s no federal minimum age for arrest, so each state sets its own bar. In 25 states, including Virginia, there’s no minimum age for juvenile prosecution, though Virginia’s juvenile-detention facilities have an age minimum of 11. Kids as young as 12 have been tried as adults in the US, spending years in prison for crimes they committed as children.

Young people of color in the criminal-justice system face especially severe and disproportionate repercussionsJoshua Rovner, the director of youth justice at The Sentencing Project, said the organization’s research has found that Black children are 2 ½ times as likely to be arrested as white kids and 4½ times as likely to be incarcerated, despite no quantifiable difference in their behavior. Black children are also more likely than white kids to be charged as adults, Rovner said.

Such discrepancies in treatment combined with the science supporting age-appropriate adjudication have led many advocates to draw a line in the sand. “Our position is that no one under 18 should be charged in adult court regardless of the circumstances,” Rovner said.

“We’ve drawn that line of age of 18 in this country in so many ways: when you can join the military, when you can get married, and when you can buy lottery tickets,” he added. “But we’ve decided that under the extraordinary circumstances that a young person is accused of a very serious crime, we’re comfortable pretending that that young person is an adult.”

Children’s malleable brains mean rehabilitation is better than incarceration

The police in Virginia have not said whether the boy, who’s being held at a medical facility under an emergency court order, or his mother will face charges. A representative for the Newport News Police Department told Insider on Friday that the boy had not been charged and was in the custody of the city’s human-services department.

But legal experts and criminal-justice advocates have told Insider that the 6-year-old is unlikely to be charged or prosecuted in the shooting.

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