Virginia elementary school administrators issued three warnings that the boy had a gun

Attorney Diane Toscano, representing Abigail Zwerner, the Newport News teacher who was shot and killed by a six-year-old student, reads a statement to the media in Newport News, Va. on Wednesday, January 25, 2023 (Mike Caudill/The Virginian -Pilot via AP)

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Concerned staffers warned administrators at a Virginia elementary school three times that a 6-year-old boy had a gun and threatened other students in the hours before he shot and wounded a teacher, but administration “was paralyzed with apathy” and has not called the police, removed the boy from class or locked down the school, the injured teacher’s attorney said Wednesday.

Diane Toscano, an attorney for Abigail Zwerner, said during a news conference that she notified the school board on Newport News that the 25-year-old Richneck Elementary School teacher plans to sue the school district over the Jan. 6 shooting in which Zwerner sustained serious injuries.

“Three times that day, within a few hours, the school administration was warned three times – three times – by concerned teachers and staff that the boy was carrying a gun and was threatening people at the school. But the administration could not be disturbed,” Toscano said.

She said Zwerner first went to an administrator around 11:15 a.m. on the day of the shooting and said the boy had threatened to hit another child, but nothing was done.

About an hour later, another teacher went to an administrator and said she took it upon herself to search the boy’s book bag, but warned that she thought the boy put the gun in his pocket before leaving for recess went outside, said Toscano.

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“The administrator downplayed the teacher’s report and the possibility of a gun and said – and I quote – ‘Well, he has small pockets,'” Toscano said.

Just after 1 p.m., another teacher told an administrator that another student, who was “crying and scared,” said the boy showed him the gun during recess and threatened to shoot him if he told anyone. Nothing had been done here either, she said.

When another employee, who had heard the boy might have a gun, asked an administrator to search the boy, he was turned down, Toscano said.

“He was told to wait out the situation because the school day was almost over,” she said.

About an hour later, “Abby Zwerner was shot dead in front of these horrified children and the school and community are living the nightmare, all because the school administration failed to act,” Toscano said.

“If they hadn’t been so paralyzed with apathy, they could have prevented this tragedy,” she said.

School district spokeswoman Michelle Price declined to comment.

“As the school board investigation is ongoing, I cannot comment on the statements made by Ms. Zwerner’s attorney at this time,” Price wrote in an email.

School board chairwoman Lisa Surles-Law did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment on Toscano’s allegations.

The shooting raised questions about safety at school and stunned Newport Newsa city of about 185,000 people about 70 miles southeast of Richmond.

Superintendent George Parker III, who was harshly criticized of parents and teachers after the shooting, has said that at least one administrator was told on the day of the shooting that the boy may have a gun, but no gun was found when his backpack was searched. Police said school officials didn’t tell them about the tip before the shooting, which happened hours later.

Cindy Connell, a middle school teacher in Newport News, called the events described by Toscano “beyond appalling.”

“This is just another example of the administration not listening to teachers’ concerns, and the only reason we’re talking about this is because Abby Zwerner was shot,” Connell said.

“I think every administrator who’s been repeatedly told this kid has a gun, we think this kid has a gun – anyone who knew about this situation and didn’t do anything should lose their job.”

Police Chief Steve Drew has repeatedly called the shooting “premeditated” and said the boy took aim at Zwerner and fired a round, hitting her in the hand and chest. Zwerner was hospitalized for nearly two weeks but is now recovering at home, Toscano said.

“The road to full recovery will be long … and the psychological scars will remain,” Toscano said.

The boy’s mother legally bought the gun used in the shooting, police said. The boy’s family said in a statement last week that the gun was “safe”. Family lawyer James Ellenson told The Associated Press that he believed the gun was in the woman’s closet on a six-foot shelf and had a trigger lock that required a key.

The family also said in their statement that the boy has an “acute disability” and is under a care plan “which included his mother or father attending school with him and accompanying him to class every day.” The week of the shooting marked the first in which a parent was not in class with him, the family said.

James Ellenson, an attorney for the boy’s family, released a statement on Wednesday saying they “continue to pray for Ms Zwerner and wish her a full and full recovery”.

“Our hearts go out to everyone involved,” Ellenson said.

The Newport News School Board will hold a special meeting Wednesday night to vote on a separation agreement and severance package for Parker, according to a published agenda. The board is also set to vote on a new interim superintendent.

The school, which has been closed since the shooting, is scheduled to reopen next week. Karen Lynch, a longtime principal in the Newport News School District, has been named an “administrator on special assignment” in Richneck, Lynch said in a note to parents Monday.

Ahead of the reopening, administrators and teachers held an open house at the school on Wednesday to allow students and their families to visit staff and participate in activities. Signs on the sidewalks outside the school offered reassuring messages to students: “You have this,” “We pray for you,” and “You are loved.”


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