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Va. school ignored warnings boy had gun before he shot teacher, attorney says

Allegation came on same day Newport News School Board voted to relieve superintendent of his duties

A crowd gathers outside Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., on Jan. 6. (Billy Schuerman/Virginian-Pilot/AP)

Officials at a Virginia school were warned on three occasions by teachers that a 6-year-old boy had a gun or had made threats, but failed to take action on the day he shot his first-grade teacher in class, an attorney for the teacher said Wednesday.

The attorney, Diane Toscano, asserted that the shooting of Richneck Elementary School teacher Abigail Zwerner, 25, could have been avoided if administrators had taken proper steps to search the child for the firearm. She made the allegations and revealed details about the hours before the shooting as she announced publicly that the Newport News School Board had been notified that Zwerner intends to sue over the incident.

“This tragedy was entirely preventable if the school administrators responsible for school safety had done their part and taken action when they had knowledge of imminent danger,” Toscano said.

Michelle Price, a spokeswoman for Newport News schools, declined to comment on Toscano’s claims, citing the ongoing investigation.

Toscano’s claims came on the same day the Newport News School Board voted 5-1 to approve a separation agreement for its superintendent, George Parker III, who has been criticized for his handling of the shooting and security issues in Newport News schools. There have been three shootings on city campuses since late 2021.

Lisa R. Surles-Law, the school board’s chair, said he would be “relieved” of his duties on Feb. 1, but noted the decision was made “without cause” and praised him as a “capable division leader.” Price said Wednesday night that Ebony Parker, Richneck’s assistant principal, also had resigned. Principal Briana Foster Newton remains a school employee, but it was not clear in what role. Efforts to reach Ebony Parker and Newton were not successful. The superintendent said he will provide a statement Thursday.

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The Richneck Elementary shooting: What we know

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Toscano said Zwerner had sounded alarms about the boy nearly three hours before the Jan. 6 shooting, outlining a timeline of the events of the day during a news conference. Zwerner was not at the news conference, but her attorney’s remarks — her first since the incident that has grabbed national attention — offered some of the educator’s perspective on the incident. Toscano did not take any questions.

Toscano said Zwerner told a Richneck school administrator that the 6-year-old had threatened to beat up another child at 11:15 or 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 6. Toscano said the school did not call security and did not remove the student from the classroom.

Around 12:30 p.m., another teacher — after apparently receiving a warning the boy had a gun — searched his backpack and flagged school administrators, Toscano said.

“The teacher then tells the administrator that she believes the boy put the gun in his pocket before going outside for recess,” Toscano said, alleging, “The administrator downplayed the report from the teacher and the possibility of a gun, saying ‘Well, he has little pockets.’”

Toscano called the administrator’s reaction “outrageous” and said the police should have been contacted. Officials have said previously the school was tipped to the student possibly having a gun, but staffers did not find a weapon after searching his backpack. Newport News police have said they were never informed about the reports of a gun before the shooting occurred.

Toscano said shortly after 1 p.m., a third teacher told administrators about a crying and fearful student who “bravely confessed” to his teacher that the boy showed him the gun at recess and threatened to shoot him if he told anyone. Toscano said administrators again failed to take action or notify authorities.

A fourth employee, who heard about the gun, asked an administrator for permission to search the boy less than an hour before the shooting and was denied, Toscano said. That employee was told to “wait the situation out because the school day was almost over,” the lawyer alleged.

Toscano did not name the administrator or administrators who allegedly failed to act.

The shooting occurred shortly after 2 p.m. as the school day was ending, Newport News police have said. The boy pulled out a gun and shot Zwerner as she was teaching, police said.

Despite being shot through the hand and in the chest, Zwerner was “the last person to leave class,” Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said at a news conference after the shooting. Drew said surveillance video showed the teacher turned around after exiting to make sure “every one of those students was safe.”

Toscano said Zwerner is home after being treated at the hospital but will have lasting physical and psychological scars. Toscano said the teacher was heartened by the outpouring of support for her across the country.

“Abby Zwerner is the best of us,” Toscano said. “An optimistic, dedicated and caring elementary school teacher who endured the unthinkable.”

Ron Avi Astor, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who studies school safety, said that a gun or other weapon often is discovered at school because a student showed a classmate or told someone.

When teachers or other employees sounded alarms at Richneck, Astor said, administrators should have acted in “a swift and decisive way” — contacting police, questioning the child together with those claiming he had a weapon, and phoning the child’s parents to see if they owned a gun. He said the likelihood of the boy not having a gun after multiple reports is “very low.”

If the allegations are proved, “this is just a big mistake to have such a high degree of concern from so many different sources, from so many different places — on the playground, in the classroom, from the teacher, from other teachers — and not to have a response that’s really serious,” Astor said.

Dewey Cornell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia who studies school safety, said young children often say outlandish things they don’t mean. But Virginia schools are expected to have threat assessment teams trained to handle such situations.

“Schools should call the police if there is an immediate risk of violence, such as a report that someone has a gun at school, but in most cases the school should investigate the statements of a student before calling the police,” he said in an email.

The allegations of missed warning signs echoed those of another high-profile school shooting — the 2021 killing of four students at Michigan’s Oxford High School by a 15-year-old boy.

A day earlier, a teacher had caught the teen searching online for ammunition. School administrators confronted him and alerted his parents to the incident, but took no further action. The next morning, a teacher found a note on which the boy drew a person shot dead, along with “blood everywhere” and “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” His parents were summoned to the school to meet with their son and a counselor, but none of them searched his backpack, where he’d hidden a handgun.

The teen was allowed to return to class, and the shooting started soon after.

Zwerner’s shooting in Newport News has led to a stream of complaints from parents and teachers concerned about safety in the schools.

Michael Dunham — whose son, Justice Dunham, was fatally shot in the Menchville High School parking lot just after he turned 17 — said in an interview that Parker, the superintendent, only spoke to him once and refused his request to erect a memorial to his son in the parking lot.

Dunham said that when he heard about the Richneck shooting, he thought it was a “natural progression” of violence in the schools.

“Maybe if he would have acknowledged that shooting, the shooting at Richneck doesn’t happen,” he said of Parker.

During the meeting Wednesday night at which the school board voted to relieve Parker of his duties, board member Douglas C. Brown said he became convinced that the 27,000-student school system had to move in a new direction, and that the threats public schools faced in 2018, when Parker was hired, are not the same as those faced today. The board’s severance agreement with Parker calls for him to receive two years of his current salary, plus benefits.

“We’re going to have to become a much more student-discipline-and-safety-oriented board and division,” Brown said.

The board also voted to appoint Michele Mitchell, executive director of the school system’s student advancement division, as interim superintendent.

The Washington Post reported previously that Zwerner had repeatedly asked administrators for help with the boy, but school officials played down warnings about his behavior from her and other teachers, including one incident where he threatened to light a teacher on fire and watch her die, according to messages from teachers.

Images captured from an online discussion between Parker and school employees show educators sounded alarms about the 6-year-old and sought assistance during the school year.

“She had asked for help,” one staffer wrote in that chat, referring to Zwerner.

“Several times,” came another message.

“Yes she did.”

“Two hours prior.”

“All year.”

A separate account of the school’s handling of the boy by a Richneck teacher that was also obtained by The Post claimed that administrators waved away concerns about the boy’s behavior, and that the school was unable to properly care for him.

The district has announced it is purchasing 90 metal detectors to install at all of its schools, acquiring clear backpacks for students and making additional upgrades to security in the wake of the incident.

Police have said the boy brought the gun from home in his backpack and the firearm was legally purchased by the boy’s mother. An attorney for the boy’s family has said the gun was kept on the top shelf of the mother’s closet with a trigger lock on it.

Police have declined to comment on the family’s characterization that the weapon was secured.

6-year-old who allegedly shot Va. teacher used gun legally purchased by mom, police say

Police are still investigating and have not announced any charges. Legal experts say it is unlikely the 6-year-old will be charged since in Virginia, children younger than 7 are presumed unable to form the intent to carry out an illegal act. Police said they are exploring the possibility of charging the boy’s mother for failing to secure the gun.

The boy’s family members expressed sympathy for Zwerner and said the child has an unspecified “acute disability.” James Ellenson, an attorney for the boy’s family, declined to comment on the claims by Zwerner’s attorney but said that the family is praying for the teacher and that the school had failed the boy as well.

“If any of this had been acted on, this boy would have been protected from himself,” Ellenson said.

Morrison reported from Newport News, Va. John Woodrow Cox contributed to this report.

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