Richneck Elementary School
Signs stand outside Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., Jan. 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Denise Lavoie, File)

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A former assistant principal at a Virginia elementary school showed a “shocking” lack of response to multiple warnings that a 6-year-old had a gun in the hours before he shot his teacher, according to a grand jury report released Wednesday.

“The child was not searched. The child was not removed from class. The police or SRO was not called,” the report said, referring to a school resource officer.

The report was released a day after the former administrator, Ebony Parker, was charged with eight counts of felony child neglect, one for “each of the eight bullets that endangered all the students” in teacher Abby Zwerner’s classroom, Newport News prosecutors said in a statement.

The 31-page report offers fresh details about the January 2023 shooting and serious wounding of Zwerner, which occurred after the boy brought his mother’s gun to school in a backpack. And it catalogues missed opportunities to provide more resources to the often-misbehaving student, as well as tools Parker could have used to remove him from class, such as alternative school, in the months before the shooting.

“Dr. Parker’s lack of response and initiative given the seriousness of the information she had received on Jan. 6, 2023 is shocking,” the grand jury report said. “This is only heightened by the fact that she was well aware of the child’s past disciplinary issues and had been involved in the decisions to address his behavior” in both the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years.

One parent testified that during the latter of those two school years, her son was choked twice by a fellow classmate, but the parent was never given the boy’s identity or told that he had a history of such behavior, including choking his kindergarten teacher. It was the same boy who shot Zwerner, the report said.

The report accused Parker of criminal responsibility because she “neglected to take any action” the day of the shooting after receiving reports that the boy may have had a gun.

“Over the course of approximately two hours Dr. Parker acted in complete disregard for the safety of all the children in Ms. Zwerner’s class, all the children the child played with at recess, and all the children who could have been shot in the school,” the report said.

Parker, 39, posted $4,000 in secured bail Wednesday and did not yet have an attorney listed for her, the Newport News Circuit Court clerk’s office said.

More details of the report

The grand jury report provides a granular, often minute-by-minute accounting of each time the special grand jury said Parker disregarded concerns. For instance, one teacher spoke of a “visibly scared and shaking” child who reported seeing bullets from the boy’s 9mm handgun during recess.

A counselor, Rolonzo Rawles, then told Parker the same story, according to the report.

“Mr. Rawles, now the third person and fourth time this message had been relayed, went back to Dr. Parker and communicated that the child either had a gun or ammunition at least,” it said.

Parker refused to let the boy be searched after his backpack was examined, the report said, describing the child sitting as his desk with “a loaded firearm tucked into his jacket.”

“Ms. Zwerner was then left alone with 16 first-grade students in her class that day, of which one had been reported by three different students over the course of two hours to have a firearm,” it added.

In the weeks after the shooting, Newport News Public Schools announced that Parker had resigned.

She and other school officials also face a $40 million negligence lawsuit from Zwerner, whose accusations dovetail with many of the details in the grand jury’s report.

The similarities were emphasized Wednesday by Zwerner’s attorneys, Diane Toscano, Kevin Biniazan and Jeffrey Breit, who said the grand jury report “reveals a systemic failure that led to the shooting.”

Zwerner was sitting at a reading table in front of the class when the boy fired the gun, police said. The bullet struck Zwerner’s hand and then her chest, collapsing one of her lungs. She spent nearly two weeks in the hospital and has endured multiple surgeries as well as ongoing emotional trauma, according to her lawsuit.

Hearing from the children

The children who were in her class that day are also struggling emotionally.

One student “will not talk to anyone about what happened,” according to the report, while another boy covers his ears any time someone asks him about it.

“He is afraid that the child will come back someday and hurt him,” it said. “His mother is currently in therapy as a result.”

Yet another boy who reported the 6-year-old having the gun is also in therapy, struggling with the guilt that the shooting was his fault, according to the report.

And a woman whose daughter witnessed the shooting and was subsequently denied a request to transfer to a different school was said to have sold her house and drained her savings — all “so that her daughter could go to school without feeling afraid.”

“[One student] is afraid that the child will come back someday and hurt him,” it said. “His mother is currently in therapy as a result.”

Many children were denied transfers per school policy, according to the report, which recommended allowing them in cases where a medical professional confirms a child is still struggling.

The report also found that police responding to the shooting were unable to access the school immediately because the door-buzzer system was broken. They banged on the door for a full minute before a custodian let them in.

The grand jury recommended that all Newport News schools have an automatic system, such as key fobs or swipe cards, to allow law enforcement instantaneous entry.

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