By DENISE LAVOIE AP Legal Affairs Writer
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A 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 and of ignoring multiple warnings the day of the shooting that the boy was armed and in a “violent mood.”
Abby Zwerner, a first-grade 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. The 25-year-old teacher spent nearly two weeks in the hospital and required four surgeries.
The shooting sent shock waves through the military shipbuilding community and the country, with many wondering how a child so young could access 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 school board spokesperson, said via email that the board had not yet been served with the lawsuit, adding the school division refers all legal claims information to its insurer.
“Our thoughts and prayers remain with Abby Zwerner and her ongoing recovery,” said a board statement, calling the safety and well-being of staff and students its utmost 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.”
George Parker, the former superintendent, did not immediately return a cellphone message. A message left on a cellphone listing for Ebony Parker also was not returned.
Foster-Newton’s attorney, Pamela Branch, has said she was unaware of reports that the boy had a gun at school on the day of the shooting.
“Mrs. Briana Foster-Newton will vigorously defend any charges brought against her as a part of the lawsuit filed by Ms. Zwerner and respond accordingly,” Branch said in a statement.
James Ellenson, an attorney for the boy’s family, said in a statement Monday afternoon that the “allegations in the complaint in reference to the child and his family should be taken with a large grain of salt.”
“We of course continue to pray for Ms. Zwerner’s complete recovery,” Ellenson said. “In that there is still the potential for criminal charges, there is no further comment.”
No one has been charged. The local prosecutor said last month that the boy will not be charged, although an investigation is ongoing.
The superintendent was fired by the school board and the assistant principal resigned. A school district spokesperson has said Newton-Foster is still employed by the school district, but declined to say what position she holds. The board voted to install metal detectors in every school in the district 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,” the lawsuit states.
School officials removed the boy from Richneck and sent him to another school for the remainder of the year, but allowed his return for first grade in fall 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,” and was cursing staff and teachers, it says.
“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,” the lawsuit states.
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.
School employees issued a series of warnings the morning of the shooting
The lawsuit describes a series of warnings school employees gave administrators in the hours before the shooting, beginning with Zwerner, who went to Ebony Parker’s office between 11:15 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. and told her the boy “was in a violent mood,” had 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 give 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 his sweatshirt pocket. 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 that 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 contacted the office and told a music teacher, who answered the phone, what the boy told her.
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 asked Parker for permission to search the boy, but Parker forbade him, “and stated that John Doe’s mother would be arriving soon to pick him up.”
About an hour later, the boy pulled the gun from 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. Gwynn has yet to decide if any adults will be charged.
The boy used his mother’s gun, which police said was purchased legally. Ellenson, the attorney for the boy’s family, has said previously that the firearm was secured on a high closet shelf with a lock.
Associated Press reporter Ben Finley in Norfolk contributed to this story.