By Holly Matkin and Sandy Malone
Newport News, VA – The mother of a six-year-old Richneck Elementary School student who shot his teacher in front of his classmates in January has been criminally charged.
Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn announced on Monday that a grand jury had indicted the boy’s mother, Deja Taylor, on charges of felony child neglect and misdemeanor recklessly leaving a loaded firearm so as to endanger a child, NBC News reported.
The prosecutor previously said in March that he will not be seeking charges against the six-year-old boy.
Taylor’s attorney, James Ellenson, said his client is aware of the indictment and that she plans to turn herself in to police “later this week,” NBC News reported.
Gwynn has also asked the Newport News Circuit Court to convene a special grand jury to look into whether the school failed to stop the attack due to lapses in its security, according to the news outlet.
“Every criminal case is unique in its facts, and these facts support these charges, but our investigation into the shooting continues,” Gwynn said. “If the Special Grand Jury determines that additional persons are criminally responsible under the law, it can return additional indictments.”
Abigail “Abby” Zwerner, the 25-year-old teacher who was shot in the hand and chest inside her first-grade classroom on Jan. 6, filed a $40 million lawsuit against Richneck Elementary School administrators on April 3, NBC News reported.
Zwerner’s attorney, Diane Toscano, said the charges against Taylor are a step in the right direction, but that more people need to be held responsible for allegedly ignoring multiple red flags leading up to the shooting.
“There were failures in accountability at multiple levels that led to Abby being shot and almost killed,” Toscano said. “Today’s announcement addresses but one of those failures.”
“Our lawsuit makes clear that we believe the school division violated state law, and we are pursuing this in civil court,” she added. “We will not allow school leaders to escape accountability for their role in this tragedy.”
Toscano said during a prior press conference that school administrators received multiple warnings about the pending attack on the day it occurred.
“On that day, over the course of a few hours, three different times — three times — school administration was warned by concerned teachers and employees that the boy had a gun on him at the school and was threatening people,” Toscano said in late January, according to the Associated Press. “But the administration could not be bothered.”
Zwerner was sitting at the reading table in her first-grade classroom when the boy came up and shot her in her hand and chest with a 9mm handgun, NBC News reported.
Despite her severe wounds, the teacher was able to get approximately 20 other students to safety in the wake of the attack.
She was hospitalized for nearly two weeks and is continuing to recover at home, the Associated Press reported.
“The road to full recovery will be long… and the psychological scars will be lasting,” Toscano said.
Zwerner said she first reached out to Richneck Elementary School administrators at 11:15 a.m. on Jan. 6 and told them the boy was threatening to beat up another student, according to Toscano.
She said no action was taken as a result of that report, the Associated Press reported.
Zwerner said she went and checked the boy’s backpack about an hour later and didn’t find anything, but that she was afraid the student had put a gun in his pocket before he went out to recess, Toscano said.
The concerned teacher notified a school administrator about her suspicions, but said she was blown off, the Associated Press reported.
“The administrator downplayed the report from the teacher and the possibility of a gun, saying — and I quote — ‘Well, he has little pockets,’” Toscano alleged.
A second teacher notified an administrator at 1 p.m. that day that a different student claimed the same boy had showed him a gun during recess, the attorney said.
The child was reportedly “crying and fearful,” and said the boy threatened to shoot him if he told anyone about the gun, according to Toscano.
When no action was taken yet again, another employee who heard about the allegations asked the school administration if he could search the boy, the Associated Press reported.
That request was also denied.
“He was told to wait the situation out because the school day was almost over,” Toscano said.
The shooting took place approximately one hour later, the Associated Press reported.
“Abby Zwerner was shot in front of those horrified kids, and the school and community are living the nightmare, all because the school administration failed to act,” Toscano declared. “Were they not so paralyzed by apathy, they could have prevented this tragedy.”
Newport News Superintendent George Parker previously confirmed that at least one school administrator had been alerted on the day of the shooting that the child possibly had a gun and that a search of his backpack came up empty.
Newport News police said at a press conference on Jan. 13 that law enforcement was never notified about that tip or the search, according to the Associated Press.
Newport News Police Department (NNPD) spokesperson Kelly King said in an email that the police department learned through their investigation after the teacher was shot that a school employee had been notified of a possible gun on campus before the Jan. 6 elementary school shooting.
“The Newport News Police Department was not notified of this information prior to the incident,” King wrote.
The Newport News School Board held a special meeting in late January and ultimately voted 5-1 to fire Parker, WAVY reported.
“Effective Feb. 1, Dr. Parker will be relieved of his duties as superintendent of Newport News Public Schools,” School Board Chair Lisa Surles-Law said. “It is important that we state that this decision was made without cause, cause being defined in his previous contract, as Dr. Parker is a capable division leader who served Newport News for nearly five years through some extremely challenging circumstances.”
As per his contract, because he was terminated without cause, Parker will receive full salary and benefits until June 30, 2024, WAVY reported.
He is currently collecting a $251,057 salary.
Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew told reporters at a press briefing shortly after the incident that a six-year-old boy was involved in “an altercation” with his teacher before he pulled out a handgun and shot her, The Virginian-Pilot reported.
“This was not an accidental shooting,” Chief Drew said.
The police chief said that one round was fired, The Virginian-Pilot reported.
The six-year-old shooter was taken into custody at the scene.
No students were injured during the incident, according to police.
Another six-year-old student who was in the classroom when her teacher was shot told reporters that her classmate shot their teacher “on purpose,” The Virginian-Pilot reported.
Chief Drew said the child used his mother’s gun to shoot his teacher, WRC reported.
The police chief said the gun had been purchased legally but it wasn’t yet known how the six-year-old gained access to the weapon that he used.
The boy’s family said in a statement that the gun was “secured” in Taylor’s closet on a shelf more than six feet off of the ground, the Associated Press reported.
The firearm also had a trigger lock and required a key to open it, according to Ellenson.
The family said the boy suffers from an “acute disability” and was supposed to have one of his parents in class with him every day under a care plan, the Associated Press reported.
The week the shooting occurred was the first time a parent hadn’t been in school with him, the Associated Press reported.
“It was a joint decision between the school and the parents that this was no longer necessary,” Ellenson said, according to WTOP.
The boy has been under the care of a hospital since the shooting and is currently receiving “the treatment he needs,” his family said.
The school district placed a full-time security guard at the elementary school in the wake of the incident and has also installed metal detectors, NBC News reported.