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Newport News school board to vote on releasing superintendent after shooting

Richneck Elementary School set to reopen Jan. 30, more than three weeks after a first-grade teacher was shot.

Newport News Superintendent George Parker III listens as the public speaks to the Newport News School Board on Jan. 17. (Billy Schuerman/Virginian-Pilot/AP)

School officials in the Virginia school system where a first-grade teacher was recently shot as she delivered a lesson are expected to part ways with the district’s superintendent.

The school board in Newport News, which met in a closed session Tuesday evening, scheduled a vote for Wednesday on a separation agreement with Superintendent George Parker III. The board is also slated to decide on the appointment of an interim superintendent.

The sudden leadership change follows a shooting Jan. 6 at Richneck Elementary School, where a 6-year-old allegedly fired on teacher Abigail Zwerner with a gun police said he brought from home in his backpack.

At a school board meeting last week, parents called for the firing of Parker, citing systemic problems that eroded school safety across the 27,000-student district. Many said his plan to install metal detectors at schools was entirely inadequate. Some raised their voices in anger, while others testified in tears.

Parker could not be immediately reached Tuesday.

The Jan. 6 incident stunned educators and parents across the country — a first-grader accused in what authorities said was the intentional shooting of his classroom teacher. The bullet passed through Zwerner’s raised hand and into her chest. She was severely wounded but survived and is recovering.

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The Richneck Elementary shooting: What we know

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Before the shooting, school officials had been alerted the 6-year-old might have a gun. But when they searched his backpack, they did not find one, Parker has said. Since then, parents have questioned why the school had not notified law enforcement about the report that a student might have a gun and how a 6-year-old managed to hide it. Administrators were also found to have downplayed educators’ warnings about the boy’s behavior, including a threat he made against another teacher, according to messages from teachers obtained by The Washington Post.

School downplayed warnings about 6-year-old before teacher’s shooting, staffers say

Parker, who took the helm as superintendent in Newport News in 2018, previously served as superintendent of Caroline County Public Schools in Virginia and assistant superintendent of secondary schools in Virginia Beach City Public Schools, according to the district’s website. He started as an educator in 1993, after four years in the Navy.

Following the shooting, the family of the first-grader expressed sympathy for the educator and said their son suffers from an “acute” disability. An attorney for the family, James Ellenson, said the gun had been kept on a top shelf in the mother’s bedroom closet and he was unsure how the boy managed to remove a trigger lock that prevents the gun from firing. Ellenson has said the child was under psychiatric care at a facility.

Authorities are still investigating the incident.

Also on Tuesday, school officials said Richneck Elementary, with 557 students, will reopen for classes Jan. 30, more than three weeks after the incident. School parents and children are welcome to visit the campus Wednesday during two hours of activities that are intended to begin the transition back to daily instruction.

“We appreciate your patience as we plan to return learning to Richneck,” wrote Karen Lynch, an administrator on special assignment to the school, in an update on the school’s website.

School system officials declined to comment on whether Richneck’s principal would return to the school.

Michelle Price, a school system spokeswoman, said Tuesday that security officers employed by the district would support students and staff at the school, along with a state-of-the-art metal detector system.

She said classroom doors have been installed in areas that lacked them, and other doors in the building have been repaired or replaced

An attorney for Zwerner is expected to make her first public remarks on the incident at a Wednesday news conference. Attorney Diane Toscano will give an update on the teacher, provide new information about the shooting and discuss the next steps for the educator, according to a press release.

Parents, teachers blast Newport News school board, administration after shooting

The violence “shook every mama in the entire city,” Colleen Renthrope, a mother of two whose children attend a different elementary school in the district, said on Tuesday. “We already had to deal with Uvalde, Texas. ... The potential is there for your child to be in one of these situations.”

Renthrope said she hoped mental health services would be available for children as they returned. “I think they’re going to have a lot of very shocked and traumatized students,” she said. “I hope they are prepared to deal with it in the most healthy and responsible ways.”

Justin Jouvenal and Laura Meckler contributed to this report.

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