By Denise Lavoie
RICHMOND, Va. — A first-grade Virginia teacher who was shot and seriously wounded by her 6-year-old student filed a lawsuit Monday seeking $40 million in damages from school officials, accusing them of gross negligence for allegedly ignoring multiple warnings on the day of the shooting that the boy had a gun and was in a “violent mood.”
Abby Zwerner, a 25-year-old teacher at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia was shot in the hand and chest on Jan. 6 as she sat at a reading table in her classroom. She spent nearly two weeks in the hospital and has had four surgeries since the shooting.
The shooting rattled the military shipbuilding community and sent shock waves around the country, with many wondering how a child so young could get access to a gun and shoot his teacher.
The lawsuit names as defendants the Newport News School Board, former Superintendent George Parker III, former Richneck principal Briana Foster Newton and former Richneck assistant principal Ebony Parker.
Michelle Price, a spokesperson for the school board, Lisa Surles-Law, chair of the school board, and other board members did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment on the lawsuit. The former superintendent did not immediately return a message seeking comment left on his cellphone.
A message left on a cellphone listing for Ebony Parker was not immediately returned.
The Associated Press couldn’t immediately find a working phone number for Newton. Her attorney, Pamela Branch, has said that Newton was unaware of reports that the boy had a gun at school on the day of the shooting.
No one, including the boy, has been charged in the shooting. The superintendent was fired by the school board after the shooting, while the assistant principal resigned. A school district spokesperson has said Newton is still employed by the school district, but declined to say what position she holds. The board also voted to install metal detectors in every school in the district, beginning with Richneck, and to purchase clear backpacks for all students.
In the lawsuit, Zwerner’s attorneys say all of the defendants knew the boy “had a history of random violence” at school and at home, including an episode the year before, when he “strangled and choked” his kindergarten teacher.
“All Defendants knew that John Doe attacked students and teachers alike, and his motivation to injure was directed toward anyone in his path, both in and out of school, and was not limited to teachers while at the school,” the lawsuit states.
School officials removed the boy from Richneck and sent him to another school for the remainder of the year, but allowed him to return for first grade in the fall of 2022, the lawsuit states. He was placed on a modified schedule “because he was chasing students around the playground with a belt in an effort to whip them with it,” and was cursing staff and teachers, it says. Under the modified schedule, one of the boy’s parents was required to accompany him during the school day.
“Teachers’ concerns with John Doe’s behavior (were) regularly brought to the attention of Richneck Elementary School administration, and the concerns were always dismissed,” the lawsuit states. Often after he was taken to the office, “he would return to class shortly thereafter with some type of reward, such as a piece of candy,” according to the lawsuit.
The boy’s parents did not agree to put him in special education classes where he would be with other students with behavioral issues, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit describes a series of warnings school employees gave administrators in the hours before the shooting, beginning with Zwerner, who went to the office of assistant principal Ebony Parker between 11:15 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. and told her the boy “was in a violent mood,” threatened to beat up a kindergartener and stared down a security officer in the lunchroom. The lawsuit alleges that Parker “had no response, refusing even to look up at (Zwerner) when she expressed her concerns.”
At about 11:45 a.m., two students told Amy Kovac, a reading specialist, that the boy had a gun in his backpack. The boy denied it, but refused to provide his backpack to Kovac, the lawsuit states.
Zwerner told Kovac that she had seen the boy take something out of his backpack and put it into the pocket of his sweatshirt. Kovac then searched the backpack but did not find a weapon.
Kovac told Ebony Parker that the boy had told students he had a gun. Parker responded his “pockets were too small to hold a handgun and did nothing,” the lawsuit states.
Another first-grade boy, who was crying, told a teacher the boy “had shown him a firearm he had in his pocket during recess.” That teacher then contacted the office and told a music teacher, who answered the phone, what the boy told her about seeing the gun.
The music teacher said that when he informed Parker, she said the backpack had already been searched and “took no further action,” according to the lawsuit. A guidance counselor then went to Parker’s office and asked permission to search the boy for a gun, but Parker forbade him from doing so, “and stated that John Doe’s mother would be arriving soon to pick him up,” it states. About an hour later, the boy pulled the gun out of his pocket, aimed it at Zwerner and shot her, the lawsuit states.
Zwerner suffered permanent bodily injuries, physical pain, mental anguish, lost earnings and other damages, the lawsuit states. It seeks $40 million in compensatory damages.
Last month, Newport News prosecutor Howard Gwynn said his office will not criminally charge the boy because he is too young to understand the legal system and what a charge means. Gwynn has yet to decide if any adults will be charged.
The boy used his mother’s gun, which police said was purchased legally. An attorney for the boy’s family has said that the firearm was secured on a high closet shelf and had a lock on it