Lawyer: Warnings boy had gun ignored before he shot teacher

Jan 24, 2023, 6:22 PM | Updated: Jan 26, 2023, 9:49 am
FILE - Newport News Superintendent of Schools George Parker makes remarks on the safety parameters ...

FILE - Newport News Superintendent of Schools George Parker makes remarks on the safety parameters currently in place at the city's schools during a press conference at the Newport News School Administration Building in Newport News, Va., Jan. 9, 2023. The Newport News School Board announced on Wednesday, Jan. 25, that Parker will leave his role as superintendent after voting 5-1 in favor of a separation agreement and severance package. (AP Photo/John C. Clark, File)

(AP Photo/John C. Clark, File)

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Concerned staff warned administrators at a Virginia elementary school three times that a 6-year-old boy had a gun and was threatening other students in the hours before he shot and wounded a teacher, but the administration “was paralyzed by apathy” and didn’t call police, remove the boy from class or lock down the school, the wounded teacher’s lawyer said Wednesday.

Later in the day, the school board voted to fire school district superintendent George Parker III as part of a separation agreement that will pay Parker a little over $502,000 in severance — two years of his current base salary of $251,000. Parker has been sharply criticized by parents and teachers since the Jan. 6 shooting.

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

“On that day, over the course of a few hours, three different times — three times — school administration was warned by concerned teachers and employees that the boy had a gun on him at the school and was threatening people. But the administration could not be bothered,” Toscano said.

She said that Zwerner first went to an administrator at around 11:15 a.m. on the day of the shooting and said the boy had threatened to beat up another child, but no action was taken.

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

“The administrator downplayed the report from the teacher and the possibility of a gun, saying — and I quote — ‘Well, he has little pockets,’ ” Toscano said.

Shortly after 1 p.m., another teacher told an administrator that a different student who was “crying and fearful” said the boy showed him the gun during recess and threatened to shoot him if he told anyone. Again, no action was taken, 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 the situation out because the school day was almost over,” she said.

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

“Were they not so paralyzed by apathy, they could have prevented this tragedy,” she said.

School district spokesperson Michelle Price declined to comment.

“Since the school division’s investigation is ongoing, I cannot comment on the statements presented by Ms. Zwerner’s lawyer at this time,” Price wrote in an email.

The shooting raised questions over security at the school and stunned Newport News, a city of about 185,000 people roughly 70 miles (113 kilometers) southeast of Richmond.

Parker’s departure had been expected since a school board agenda was posted Tuesday showing that the panel was set to vote on his separation package. The separation and severance agreement says the board has decided to “terminate the Contract and Superintendent’s employment.”

The board voted 5-1 in favor of the agreement after several members praised Parker’s past performance as superintendent.

Board member Gary Hunter delivered a long defense of Parker as some members of the audience sighed and told him to “move on.” Hunter said he thought Parker was being unfairly blamed for the shooting and said the real problem is the lack of “commonsense gun laws.”

“Getting rid of someone is not going to fix this particular problem,” Hunter said.

As part of the agreement, board Chair Lisa Surles-Law read a statement in which the board said the decision to terminate Parker was made “without cause” and that Parker “is a capable division leader” who has served the school district for almost five years “through some extremely challenging circumstances.”

Parker has said that at least one administrator was told on the day of the shooting that the boy might have a weapon, but no weapon was found when his backpack was searched. Police have said that school officials did not tell them about that tip before the shooting, which happened hours later.

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

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

“I think any administrator that was told repeatedly that this child has a weapon, we think this child has a weapon — anyone who knew about this situation and did nothing should lose their job.”

Police Chief Steve Drew has repeatedly characterized the shooting as “intentional,” saying the boy aimed at Zwerner and fired one round, striking 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 be lasting,” Toscano said.

The boy’s mother legally purchased the gun used in the shooting, police said. The boy’s family said in a statement last week that the gun was “secured.” The family’s attorney, James Ellenson, told The Associated Press that his understanding was that the gun was in the woman’s closet on a shelf well over 6 feet (1.8 meters) high and had a trigger lock that required a key.

The family also said in its statement that the boy has an “acute disability” and was under a care plan “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 when a parent was not in class with him, the family said.

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

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

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 as an “administrator on special assignment” at Richneck, Lynch said in a note to parents on Monday.

Ahead of the reopening, administrators and teachers held an Open House at the school Wednesday for students and their families to visit staff and participate in activities. Signs along the sidewalks in front of the school offered reassuring messages to the students: “You’ve got this,” “We are Praying for You” and “You are Loved.”

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Associated Press reporter Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Maryland, contributed to this report.

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For more coverage of the shooting: https://apnews.com/hub/newport-news

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Lawyer: Warnings boy had gun ignored before he shot teacher