Newport News teacher shot by student files lawsuit against school system
The teacher who was shot by a 6-year-old student in Newport News has filed her lawsuit against the school system, saying what happened to her isn’t a risk one could reasonably anticipate as a first-grade teacher.
In it, she alleges school administrators were warned several times the boy had a gun and were negligent in failing to address the threat.
Abby Zwerner, 25, filed the suit against the School Board, as well as the district’s former superintendent and the former assistant principal and principal of Richneck Elementary.
She’s seeking $40 million in damages.
The facts of the suit largely follow the details laid out by Zwerner’s attorney, Diane Toscano, in January.
The suit alleges the student, referred to in the filing as John Doe, had a known history of random violence.
“All defendants knew that John Doe attacked students and teachers alike, and his motivation to injure was directed toward anyone in his path,” the suit says.
Attorney James Ellenson, who is representing the student's family, said the allegations in the complaint should be "taken with a large grain of salt."
The suit says that teachers regularly raised concerns with administrators, but when he’d be taken to the school office “he would return to the classroom shortly thereafter with some type of reward, such as a piece of candy.”
The child had been removed from school during the previous school year when he was in kindergarten for strangling and choking a teacher, according to the suit.
He was sent to another school “for demonstrating violent behavior” and was allowed to return to Richneck in the fall of 2022.
The suit says that the boy had been placed on a modified schedule that included a requirement that a parent accompany him during the school day because he was trying to whip students on the playground with a belt and cursing at teachers.
Ahead of the shooting the requirement for a parent to be present had been lifted.
A history of violent behavior preceded shooting
Two days before the shooting, the student smashed Zwerner’s cell phone, which resulted in a day-long suspension.
When he returned to school Zwerner told Assistant Principal Ebony Parker he was in a “violent mood.”
According to the lawsuit, Parker was known among teachers to downplay concerns and not discipline students for dangerous behavior.
Throughout the day of the shooting, the suit says three other teachers went to Parker about the possibility of the student being armed. Parker did nothing.
Two students told a different teacher the first-grader had a gun in his backpack. Zwerner said she saw the boy take something from his backpack and put it in the pocket of his sweatshirt.
The other teacher searched the boy’s backpack while he was at recess, and failing to find the gun, went to assistant principal Parker to tell her the student may have a weapon.
“Parker responded that John Doe’s pockets were too small to hold a handgun and did nothing,” the suit says.
That teacher spoke to another student after recess, who was crying. Doe had shown him the gun, but he said he wasn’t supposed to tell anyone because Doe had threatened to hurt him if he did.
The teacher called down to the central office, where another teacher who answered the phone relayed the information to Parker. Parker said she was aware of the threat, that his backpack had already been searched and took no further action.
A guidance counselor also told Parker she heard about the gun and asked to search the student. Parker refused, saying Doe’s mother would pick him up soon.
Before the child’s parents did though, he shot Zwerner once with a handgun he’d brought from home.
The bullet tore through the hand she raised to protect herself and hit her in the chest, where parts of the bullet stayed, Zwerner told The Today Show.
After the shooting, Parker resigned. Richneck Principal Briana Foster Newton was reassigned within the district. Superintendent George Parker was fired.
Newport News Commonwealth Attorney Howard Gwynn said the child would not be charged for shooting Zwerner.
Under Virginia law, a parent or guardian could still face charges for failing to keep a firearm secured and away from a child.