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Officers were on site as students begin to arrive for their first day back at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, on Monday, 30 January 2023. The school was closed following an incident earlier that month involving a 6-year-old bringing a gun to school and shooting his teacher. (Photo by Kristen Zeis for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Teacher Shot by Student Files Negligence Lawsuit Against Newport News School Board, Officials

A first-grade teacher who was shot and injured by one of her students at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, filed a gross negligence lawsuit against the school district and officials Monday morning seeking $40 million in damages.

Abby Zwerner, a 25-year-old teacher, was shot in the hand and chest by a 6-year-old boy while reading to her class at 1:59 p.m. on 6 January 2023. The boy had brought a handgun, which belonged to his parents, with him to school. Authorities decided not to issue criminal charges against the boy for the shooting, but the incident prompted Assistant Principal Ebony V. Parker to resign and a host of additional security measures to be adopted.

Nearly two months later, Zwerner filed a civil lawsuit against the Newport News School Board, Superintendent Dr. George Parker III, Assistant Principal of Richneck Elementary School Ebony V. Parker, and Principal of Richneck Elementary School Briana Foster Newton.

Security Management obtained a copy of the lawsuit from the Toscano Law Group, which is representing Zwerner.

Michelle Price, director of public information and community involvement for Newport News Public Schools, provided a statement on Monday afternoon to Security Management from the Newport News School Board, which said it had not yet received the legal documents.

“When the School Board is served, we will work with legal counsel accordingly,” the statement said. “Our thoughts and prayers remain with Abby Zwerner and her ongoing recovery. As we have shared, as a school community, we continue to recover and support one another. We have been working in partnership with our community to address safety and security, student behavior and family engatement. The safety and wellbeing of our staff and students is our most important priority. The School Board and the school division's leadership team will continue to do whatever it takes to ensure a safe and secure teaching and learning environment across all our schools.” 

In a press release published 7 January, Superintendent Dr. George Parker wrote that the school district would continue to review what transpired and learn from the experience. 

“There are many concerns that we will need to unpack before we will be able to determine if any additional preventive measures would have impacted the probability of this incident occurring,” according to the press release. In addition to assessing our established safety procedures, we will need the support of our community to significantly reduce the likelihood of a child or young adult gaining access to a weapon.”

A Pattern of Behavior

The lawsuit alleges that the boy—referred to as John Doe—had a history of random violence that school officials were familiar with, including attacks on students and teachers. For instance, the suit claims that Doe was removed from school during the 2021-2022 academic year because he strangled and choked a teacher. He was also allegedly sent to an early childhood center that same year for “demonstrating violent behavior” before returning to Richneck Elementary in the third quarter of 2022, when he was placed in Zwerner’s class.

Two days before the shooting, Zwerner’s lawsuit claims Doe grabbed her cell phone, refused to return it, and then damaged the device. Zwerner then took Doe to a lead teacher and called school security, which did not respond. They then contacted the Guidance Department, and a guidance counselor came to the classroom where Doe used profanity. He was then suspended for a day.

“During the first half of the year, [Doe] was required to be accompanied by a parent during the school day because of his violent tendencies,” according to the lawsuit. “On the day of the shooting, however, he was not accompanied by a parent and the defendants allowed him to remain unaccompanied without a one-on-one companion during the day.”

The Day of the Shooting

Approximately three hours before the shooting—during the lunchtime break for first graders—Zwerner reported to Assistant Principal Parker that Doe was in a “violent mood” because he had allegedly threatened to beat up a kindergartner during lunchtime and “angrily stared down” a security officer stationed in the lunchroom. Parker, however, did not respond to Zwerner’s concerns, which the suit claims was a pattern of Parker’s administrative style.

At 11:45 a.m. that same day, two students told a reading specialist at the school that Doe had a gun in his backpack. The specialist then confronted Doe, who said he did not have gun, would not give her his backpack, and claimed he was upset that people were bullying a classmate.

During the recess break—approximately 12:30 p.m.—Zwerner then told another first-grade teacher she saw Doe take something out of his backpack, show it to a classmate, and that she suspected he had a weapon. She also told the reading specialist Doe took something out of his backpack and put it into the pocket of his sweatshirt; the reading specialist then searched Doe’s backpack but did not find a weapon.

The reading specialist went to Parker’s office and informed her that Doe had told other students he had a gun, that Zwerner saw him remove something from his backpack before recess, and that the specialist had searched Doe’s backpack but did not find a weapon, but Parker allegedly did not take any action.

When recess ended, another teacher asked the classmate about his interaction with Doe during recess. The visibly upset classmate “told West that he could not tell her because John Doe said he would hurt him if he told anyone,” according to the lawsuit. “He then informed West that John Doe had shown him a firearm that he had in his pocket during recess.”

The teacher then kept the classmate in her classroom and contacted the school office, where another teacher said he would inform Parker. That teacher then called back, said Parker was aware of the threat, that the backpack had been searched, but that she was taking no further action, the lawsuit said.

A guidance counselor then came to the classroom, learned about the situation, and then requested Parker allow him to search Doe’s person for a firearm. But he was not granted permission and was told that Doe’s mother would be coming to the school soon to pick him up.

Less than an hour later, Doe pulled a firearm out of his sweatshirt pocket and shot Zwerner during reading time in their classroom. No one else was injured in the shooting, but Zwerner had multiple surgeries after the incident and spent two weeks in the hospital recovering, the Associated Press reports.

The Civil Charges

In her lawsuit, Zwerner has charged the school board and Parker with negligence, gross negligence, and reckless breach of assumed duty of care.

“Defendant Assistant Principal Parker breached her assumed duty to Plaintiff by doing nothing to ensure that John Doe was not in possession of a firearm on January 6, 2023, despite at least three separate warnings from teachers and staff that students had seen the firearm and that he removed an object that was likely a firearm from his backpack before it was searched and no firearm was found in it,” according to the lawsuit.

Zwerner claims that the school board is also liable because it had the power and right to control Parker’s actions. The board was also responsible as part of its duty of care obligations to Zwerner as an employee for keeping the premises “in a reasonably safe condition and to warn of any hidden dangers of which they were aware, which heightened their duty to inspect thoroughly until they knew with reasonable certainty that the danger had been identified and removed,” the lawsuit explained.

The board, according to Zwerner, knew or should have known there was a lethal firearm on its property on 6 January 2023, that it posed a danger of serious injury or death, and that it chose not to act to prevent harm or to warn her of impending harm.

“Defendants’ breach of duties includes, but is not limited to, their choice to allow John Doe to remain at Richneck Elementary School without a one-on-one companion at all times and their choice to refuse to search for the firearm that they knew to exist or to permit school employees to search John Doe’s person for a firearm when it became known, upon multiple reports from students and teachers alike, that John Doe was in possession of a firearm and posed an unreasonable danger to persons located on the Richneck Elementary School campus,” the lawsuit explained.

Zwerner is seeking a trial by jury and damages of $40 million for the injuries she sustained from the shooting; past, present, and future physical pain and mental anguish; past, present, and future lost earnings and earning capacity; medical expenses; and other damages.

Zwerner’s representation did not include any additional comment on the lawsuit besides sharing it with Security Management. While authorities have decided not to charge the boy, they are continuing to weigh whether any adults will face criminal charges for the shooting.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include a statement from the Newport News School Board.