Crime /

First Grade Teacher Shot by Student Files $40 Million Lawsuit Against Newport News School Board

The complaint says school administrators ignored concerns about the six-year-old's behavior

The Newport News School Board is facing a $40 million lawsuit from a first grade teacher who was shot by a 6-year-old student inside Richneck Elementary School.

Abigail Zwerner has accused the Virginia school administrators of gross negligence, saying they repeatedly ignored warnings about the student’s behavior. Her complaint says the school failed to implement more stringent safety measures.

“It was the responsibility of Defendants to supervise (the boy), control him, remove him when necessary for the safety of others, and search him for the firearm that they knew to be in his possession,” says the complaint filed on April 3.

The defendants include former Schools Superintendent George Parker III, former Richneck principal Briana Foster-Newton, and assistant principal Ebony Parker.

“This should have never happened. It was preventable and thank God Abby is alive. But had the school administrators acted in the interest of their teachers and their students, Abby would not have sustained a gunshot wound to the chest,” said Diane Toscano, one of the attorneys representing the teacher, at a press conference on Jan. 25.

On Jan. 6, the student brought a 9mm Taurus handgun to Richneck Elementary school and shot Zwerner around 2 pm. The bullet went through her hand and into her upper chest and shoulder. The teacher was able to escort her 18 other students out of the classroom. Law enforcement said the gun belongs to the child’s mother.

The 25-year-old was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries and underwent four surgeries on her hand. She spent roughly two weeks in the hospital and it remains unclear if she will regain full use of her left hand.

“Some days are not so good days, where I can’t get up out of bed. Some days are better than others, where I’m able to get out of bed and make it to my appointments,” Zwerner told NBC in her first interview after the incident. 

The six-year-old reportedly had a history of behavioral issues and had already been suspended for one day for breaking Zwerner’s cell phone. Three other teachers had given accounts of his behavior to the elementary school’s administration, specifically reporting a suspicion that he had brought a gun to school. One first grader told a different teacher that the child had shown him the gun at recess.

After the shooting, the boy was held at a medical facility. Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn announced in March that the boy would not be charged for the shooting. 

“We do not believe the law supports charging and convicting a 6-year-old with aggravated assault,” Gwynn told WTKR. Although Virginia law would permit the child to be charged, the “infancy defense” observed in common law says children under 7 are not able to form criminal intent and therefore cannot be prosecuted.

The unidentified child’s family released a statement through an attorney on Jan. 19 saying the gun was “secure” when the child took it and that they were praying for Zwerner’s “healing in the aftermath of such an unimaginable tragedy as she selflessly served our son and the children in the school.”

The family’s statement continued: 

Our son suffers from an acute disability and was under a care plan at the school that included his mother or father attending school with him and accompanying him to class every day. Additionally, our son has benefitted from an extensive community of care that also includes his grandparents working alongside us and other caregivers to ensure his needs and accommodations are met. The week of the shooting was the first week when we were not in class with him. We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives.

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