The Newport News School Board voted on Wednesday to replace its embattled superintendent amid the lingering fallout of a 6-year-old boy who shot his first grade teacher this month.
The board voted 5-1 to remove George Parker III as head of the district of approximately 26,500 students. His separation is effective February 1, school board chairwoman Lisa Surles-Law said.
Parker was removed “without cause,” Surles-Law said, adding that he is a “capable” leader whose removal was based on “the future development and needs of our school department.”
Michele Mitchell, executive director of student advancement at Newport News Public Schools, was named interim superintendent by a 5-1 vote.
Parker declined comment Wednesday through a district spokesman.
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Before the vote, the only school board member to support Parker, Gary Hunter, said he was “baffled” by Parker’s removal.
In heated comments, Hunter said he was absent from a previous board no-confidence vote. He spoke harshly about Parker’s breakup.
“What we’re going to do tonight will be a tragedy if we make a decision without completing an investigation,” he said, adding that Parker’s previous ratings were “very good” and that “getting someone new doesn’t solve the problem.” will solve.”
“This problem is not a Newport News problem,” he said. “The big elephant in the room is the weapon.”
Board member Douglas Brown, who supported Parker’s removal, responded that after hearing with staff and the public, he was convinced that “new direction” was needed.
“We need to become a much more disciplined and safety-focused board and department,” he said.
Before the meeting, the assistant principal at Richneck Elementary School, where the child shot teacher Abigail Zwerner, resigned. In an email to Portsmouth, Virginia-based NBC affiliate WAVY, a spokeswoman for Newport News Public Schools confirmed Ebony Parker’s resignation.
Mark Anthony Garcia Sr., a parent of a second grader at the school, said Wednesday before the board meeting that it was time for Parker to step aside.
“It’s about time someone else took his place,” he said, citing security vulnerabilities at Richneck that arose before the shooting. He added that Parker is “part of the problem.”
The school “did not act” after warnings, the lawyer says
Zwerner, 25, suffered serious injuries to her hand and chest when she was deliberately shot, Newport News police said. But she still managed to escort about 20 students safely out of the elementary school’s classroom, officials said.
“I think she saved lives because I don’t know what else would have happened if those kids had stayed in that room,” Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said.
Zwerner wrote to a loved one before she was wounded that the boy was armed and that school officials did not act, according to a source close to the situation. The source on Tuesday said Zwerner sent the text about an hour before she was shot, writing that the student said he had a gun in his backpack and that Richneck administrators were not going to help.
On Wednesday morning, Zwerner’s attorney, Diane Toscano, said at a news conference that three teachers went to the school administration about the boy’s behavior on the day of the shooting. The teachers reported the student believed he had a gun on campus, she said.
Zwerner first went to a school administrator between 11:15 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. and said the student had threatened to beat up a classmate, Toscano said. A second teacher went to a school administrator at 12:30 pm and told the administrator that the teacher took it upon herself to search the 6-year-old boy’s backpack.
“The administrator downplayed the teacher’s report and the possibility of a weapon,” Toscano said.
A third teacher told an administrator just before 1 p.m. that the boy had pointed the gun at a student during recess and “threatened to shoot him if he told anyone,” Toscano said.
A fourth employee asked an administrator for permission to search the boy, which he was denied, she said.
The administrator told the employee to “wait out the situation because the school day was almost over,” Toscano said.
She said the “administration could not be disturbed” and that the tragedy was “entirely avoidable” if they had “taken action when they were aware of an imminent danger.” But instead they didn’t act and Abby was shot dead.”
Toscano said she plans to file a lawsuit on Zwerner’s behalf.
News of Zwerner’s direct warning comes after Parker said in a virtual town hall this month that the boy was late for school and that his book bag was inspected when he arrived at the office to sign in, parents said who watched this meeting.
“At least one administrator has been alerted to a possible weapon,” Parker said in video reviewed by NBC News.
A district spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment on Toscano’s allegations.
Students are due to return to school on Monday
Drew, the police chief, said the child’s mother legally purchased the 9mm Taurus firearm used in the shooting and that the boy took the gun from his home. Whether it was properly secured is a key element in the investigation, he said.
Drew said the investigation requires an investigation into the boy’s and his parents’ backgrounds. He also said student witnesses will be questioned.
“If there are child protection records, we want to look at them. If there are any school records dealing with behavior problems or anything else, with violence, threats,” those reports will also be investigated, he said.
The boy’s family released a statement from their attorney James Ellenson last week. The family said the gun was seized when it was taken from the home by the child.
“Our family has always been committed to responsible gun ownership and keep firearms out of the reach of children. The firearm accessed by our son has been seized,” the statement said.
It was also said that the boy was disabled.
“Our son has an acute disability and was under a care plan at school that required his mother or father to attend school with him and accompany him to class every day,” the statement said. “The week of filming was the first week when we weren’t in class with him. We will regret our absence that day for the rest of our lives.”
The statement added that the boy was in a hospital after the shooting and received the “treatment he needed”.
Richneck has been closed since the shooting. The students are scheduled to return on Monday. When it reopens, the elementary school will be equipped with a metal detector.
Newport News Public Schools, which has had three gun violence incidents on county properties in 17 months, has secured funding for 90 state-of-the-art metal detectors to be placed at all schools.