By Holly Matkin and Sandy Malone
Newport News, VA – Richneck Elementary School administrators were alerted three times that a six-year-old student was threatening other students and had a gun, but they failed to act before he ultimately shot his teacher in front of his classmates later that same day, according to the teacher’s attorney.
Richneck Elementary School teacher Abigail “Abby” Zwerner, 25, was shot in the chest and hand during the horrific Jan. 6 incident, the Associated Press reported.
“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,” Zwerner’s attorney, Diane Toscano, said during a press conference on Wednesday. “But the administration could not be bothered.”
Zwerner suffered severe injuries as a result of the shooting.
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.
The attorney confirmed her client intends to sue the school district for the school administration’s alleged failure to act when they were repeatedly warned that the boy posed a threat to others.
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.”
School Board Chair Lisa Surles-Law and school district spokesperson Michelle Price did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding the allegations levied by Toscano, according to the Associated Press.
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 on Wednesday 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,” 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.
The school has been closed since the shooting occurred and is set to reopen next week, according to the Associated Press.
Authorities responded to Richneck Elementary School, located in the 200-block of Tyner Drive, off Jefferson Avenue, just after 2 p.m. on Jan. 6, for a report of a shooting inside a classroom, WAVY reported.
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 to shoot his first-grade teacher.
The boy’s family said in a recent statement that the gun, which had been purchased by the boy’s mother, was “secured” in her 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 the family’s lawyer, James Ellenson.
The child’s parents have not been criminally charged in connection with the incident, but Chief Drew said the investigation remains ongoing, WTOP reported.
The boy recently experienced an “acute disability” and was supposed to have one of his parents in class with him every day under a care plan, his family told the Associated Press.
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.
Ellenson said in a statement on Wednesday that the boy’s family continues “to pray for Ms. Zwerner and wish her a complete and full recovery,” according to the Associated Press.
“We pray for her healing in the aftermath of such an unimaginable tragedy as she selflessly served our son and the children in the school,” the family said in a statement to WTOP.
“She has worked diligently and compassionately to support our family as we sought the best education and learning environment for our son,” the family’s statement continued. “We thank her for her courage, grace and sacrifice. We grieve alongside all of the other teachers, families and administrators for how this horrific incident has impacted them, our community, and the nation.”