A Virginia first-grade school teacher who was shot in her classroom by a 6-year-old student filed a $40 million lawsuit against her school district, alleging administrators were told the boy brought a gun to school prior to the shooting and “had a history of random violence,” yet did nothing to stop him from harming her.
The teacher, Abigail Zwerner, 25, filed the civil lawsuit Monday morning in Newport News, Virginia, Circuit Court, accusing her former schools superintendent, principal and assistant principal of multiple counts of negligence, gross negligence and reckless breach of assumed duty of care.
Zwerner’s lawyers claimed in court papers that she suffered permanent bodily injuries as a result of being shot by the child on Jan. 6 inside her classroom at Richneck Elementary School.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the Newport News School Board, former Newport News School District superintendent George Parker, the former school principal Briana Foster-Newton and former assistant principal Ebony Parker.
The child, who was not named in the lawsuit or by law enforcement officials, was not charged in the shooting. “We don’t believe the law supports charging a 6-year-old with a criminal offense as serious as this one,” Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn told ABC Hampton, Virginia, affiliate WVEC in a phone call last month.
Gwynn said that once his office has reviewed all of the facts of the case, they will determine if anyone else should be criminally charged in connection with the shooting.
The legally purchased handgun used in the shooting was owned by the boy’s parents, who released a statement in January saying, the “firearm our son accessed was secured.”
“Our family has always been committed to responsible gun ownership and keeping firearms out of the reach of children,” the parents said.
The parents said their son “suffers from an acute disability and was under a care plan at the school that included his mother or father attending school with him and accompanying him to class every day.”
“The week of the shooting was the first week when we were not in class with him. We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives,” the parents said, adding that Zwerner has “worked diligently and compassionately to support our family as we sought the best education and learning environment for our son.”
The lawsuit, which refers to the boy as John Doe, alleges that just two days before she was shot, Zwerner had a classroom altercation with the boy when he took her cell phone and slammed it on the ground, shattering it. Zwerner, according to the suit, took the boy to the lead teacher and called school security, who did not respond. She claims that when a guidance counselor came to her classroom, the boy called them a derogatory name and was suspended for a day.
On the day of the shooting, the boy showed up to class with his mother, who left the campus despite being required by the school district to accompany him at all times during the school day because of his behavioral issues, according to the lawsuit.
Zwerner claims in the lawsuit that in the hours before the shooting, she told Ebony Parker that the boy was in a “violent mood,” had threatened to beat up a kindergartner during lunchtime and “angrily stared down a security officer in the lunchroom.” The suit alleges the assistant principal took no action and even refused to look at Zwerner when she expressed concern.
Roughly two hours before the shooting, two students informed the school’s reading specialist that the boy had a gun in his backpack, the suit alleges. But when the reading specialist asked him about it, the child denied he had a gun and refused to allow his backpack to be searched.
The instructor went ahead and searched the backpack while the boy was at recess, but didn’t find a gun, according to the lawsuit.
When Ebony Parker was told the boy allegedly brought a gun to school, the administrator’s response was that the child’s “pockets were too small to hold a handgun and did nothing,” the suit alleges.
After other students reported the boy showed them a gun and Zwerner observed him removing something from his backpack before recess, at least two teachers asked Ebony Parker for permission to search the child, according to the lawsuit. Ebony Parker did not report the complaints to the police, forbade the teachers from searching the child and told them the boy’s mother was returning to the school to pick him up, the lawsuit states.
Less than an hour later, Zwerner was shot inside her classroom while she was seated at a reading table, according to the lawsuit.
Zwerner was shot once in the incident. A bullet went through a hand she put up as the student fired and hit her in the chest, officials said.
Since the shooting, Zwerner has experienced physical pain, anxiety, depression and nightmares, according to the lawsuit.
The Newport News School District said in a statement to ABC News on Monday that it has not yet received the legal documents.
“When the School Board is served, we will work with legal counsel accordingly,” the statement reads. “Our thoughts and prayers remain with Abby Zwerner and her ongoing recovery. As we have shared, as a school community, we continue to recover and support one another. We have been working in partnership with our community to address safety and security, student behavior and family engagement.”
The school district’s statement adds, “The safety and wellbeing of our staff and students is our most important 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, who was fired on Jan. 26, told The Virginian Pilot that he hasn’t seen the lawsuit, but “continues to wish Ms. Zwerner well and the best of health.”
“I served diligently for five years, to the best of my ability,” George Parker told the newspaper. “I wish both Newport News Public Schools and Ms. Zwerner well as we resolve this matter — and I wish the student well, as well. But I hope that everyone can continue to move forward and make sure accountability is put in the right place.”
Foster-Newton’s lawyer, Pamela J. Branch, told ABC News she has received information that prior to the shooting, Zwerner was warned by a student in her class that the 6-year-old boy had a gun and alleged Zwerner told the student to sit down and be quiet.
“If this is true, Ms. Zwerner may have been able to avoid the injury she suffered and this will certainly impact her claimed damages. This information was never reported to Mrs. Newton,” said Branch, adding that Foster-Newton is exploring the possibility of a countersuit against Zwerner.
“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.
Efforts by ABC News to reach Ebony Parker were unsuccessful.
Besides firing its superintendent following the shooting, the school board reassigned Ebony Parker to another job within the school district and Briana Foster-Newton resigned as principal of the Richneck Elementary School. The school board also voted to install metal detectors at all schools in the district.
The lawsuit alleged the student who shot Zwerner had a “history of random violence,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges, “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 court papers allege that often after the child was sent to administrators to be disciplined, he would be “sent back to class shortly thereafter with some type of reward, such as a piece of candy.”
In an interview last month with NBC’s “Today” show, Zwerner said the shooting has altered her life forever.
“I will just never forget the look on his face that he gave me while he pointed the gun directly at me,” Zwerner said. “It’s changed me. It’s changed my life.”