A first-grade Virginia teacher shot by a 6-year-old student has filed a lawsuit seeking $40 million in damages from Newport News school officials.
In the lawsuit filed by Abby Zwerner, the teacher accuses the district accused of gross negligence for reportedly ignoring multiple warnings on the day of the shooting that the boy had a gun and was in a “violent mood.”
Zwner, a 25-year-old teacher at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, was shot in the hand and chest on Jan. 6 as she sat at a reading table in her classroom.
She was hospitalized for nearly two weeks after being shot. 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.
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Zwerner’s attorney, Diane Toscano, told reporters in January concerned staff at the school had warned administrators three times the child had a gun and was threatening other students in the hours before Zwerner was shot. Toscano said the school administration “was paralyzed by apathy” and didn’t call police, remove the boy from class or lock down the school.
In February, Zwerner’s legal notice of her intent to sue the school district said the boy who shot Zwerner had constantly cursed at staff and teachers, tried to whip students with his belt and once choked another teacher “until she couldn’t breathe.”
The lawsuit names the Newport News School Board and several school district officials, including former Superintendent George Parker III, as defendants.
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 from the Associated Press seeking comment on the lawsuit. The former superintendent did not immediately return a message seeking comment left on his cellphone.
Shooting came after suspension
Two days before the shooting, the boy allegedly “slammed” Zwerner’s cellphone and broke it, leading to a one-day suspension. When the boy returned to her class the following day, he pulled his mother’s 9mm handgun out of his pocket and shot her while she sat at a reading table, the legal notice said.
The superintendent was fired by the school board after the shooting, while the assistant principal resigned. The principal was reassigned to another job within the school district. 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.
What the lawsuit claims
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 continues.
School officials removed the boy from Richneck and sent him to another school for the remainder of the year, but allowed him to return to Richneck 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 for him to be put in special education classes where he would be with other students with behavioral issues, the lawsuit states.
The suit, which seeks $40 million in damages, says Zwerner’ suffered bodily injuries, physical pain, mental anguish, lost earnings and other damages.
6-year-old not being charged
In March, Newport News prosecutor Howard Gwynn said his office will not criminally charge the boy because he wouldn’t 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 closet shelf and had a lock on it.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Natalie Neysa Alund covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @nataliealund.