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Criminal probe focuses on school where boy, 6, shot teacher

Apr 11, 2023, 8:07 AM

FILE - Police look on as students return to Richneck Elementary on Jan. 30, 2023, in Newport News, ...

FILE - Police look on as students return to Richneck Elementary on Jan. 30, 2023, in Newport News, Va. A grand jury in Virginia has indicted the mother of a 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher on charges of child neglect and failing to secure her handgun in the family's home, a prosecutor said Monday, April 10. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP, File)

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Prosecutors in the Virginia city where a 6-year-old shot his teacher in an elementary school classroom are investigating whether the “actions or omissions” of any school employees could lead to criminal charges, according to court documents released Tuesday.

Howard Gwynn, the commonwealth’s attorney in Newport News, filed a petition for a special grand jury to probe if any “security failures” contributed to the shooting at Richneck Elementary in January that seriously wounded teacher Abby Zwerner.

Gwynn wrote that an investigation could lead to recommendations “in the hopes that such a situation never occurs again.”

Gwynn’s petition was released a day after his office charged the boy’s mother with felony child neglect and a misdemeanor count of endangering a child by reckless storage of a firearm. The child used his mother’s 9mm handgun to shoot Zwerner during class. Police say the weapon was legally purchased.

Last week, Zwerner filed a $40 million lawsuit against the school system, accusing school officials of gross negligence and of ignoring multiple warnings from teachers and other school employees that the boy was armed and in a “violent mood” on the day of the shooting.

Zwerner also alleges that school officials knew the boy “had a history of random violence” at school and at home, including an episode the year before when he “strangled and choked” his kindergarten teacher.

“Our lawsuit makes clear that we believe the school division violated state law, and we are pursuing this in civil court,” Diane Toscano, an attorney for Zwerner, said Monday.

The prosecutor’s decision to investigate school employees for any criminal activity is the latest fallout from the shooting, which sent shockwaves through Newport News, a shipbuilding city of about 185,000 people near the Chesapeake Bay.

Police Chief Steve Drew has repeatedly characterized the shooting as “intentional.” He said there was no warning and no struggle before the child pointed the gun at Zwerner and fired one round, striking her in the hand and chest.

Zwerner, 25, hustled her students out of the classroom before being rushed to the hospital, where she stayed for nearly two weeks.

Days after the shooting, school officials revealed that administrators at Richneck suspected the child may have had a weapon before the shooting occurred, but they didn’t find it despite searching his backpack.

At a subsequent school board meeting, parents and teachers lambasted administrators for what they called a misguided emphasis on attendance over the safety of children and staff. They said students who assault classmates and staff often face few consequences, while Zwerner’s shooting could have been prevented if not for a toxic environment in which teachers’ concerns are ignored.

The school board fired the district’s superintendent, while Richneck’s assistant principal resigned from the school division. The elementary school’s principal is still employed by the district but no longer holds that position.

Richneck also installed metal detectors before it reopened on Jan. 30, three weeks after the shooting.

Meanwhile, James Ellenson, the attorney for the 6-year-old’s mother, said in a statement that she “has cooperated from the first day of the incident.”

He said the mother has no criminal record and will be turning herself in before the end of the week.

“Most criminal prosecutions are adversarial in nature, but we will make our best efforts so that these proceedings will be more collaborative than most,” he said, without providing specifics.

Ellenson did not comment on the charges against her. But he has said her gun was secured on a top shelf in her closet and had a trigger lock.

The family has said 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.

The family said in the days after the shooting that the child was placed under hospital care and receiving “the treatment he needs.”

Michelle Price, a spokeswoman for the Newport News Public Schools, did not immediately respond with a comment on the criminal investigation.

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Criminal probe focuses on school where boy, 6, shot teacher