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Claim contends assistant principal failed to react to warnings about 6-year-old

Students return to Richneck Elementary in Newport News, Virginia, on Jan. 30, 2023, for the first time since a 6-year-old shot teacher Abby Zwerner three weeks before. (Billy Schuerman/Newport News Daily Press/TNS)  (Billy Schuerman/Newport News Daily Press/TNS)
By Peter Dujardin Daily Press

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – The year before a 6-year-old boy shot his teacher at Richneck Elementary School, he choked another teacher “until she couldn’t breathe,” a pending claim against the Newport News school division contends.

And two days before the first-grader shot and wounded 25-year-old Abigail Zwerner during class, he “slammed” her cellphone and broke the device, the claim asserts. That resulted in the boy’s one-day suspension the next day.

Zwerner’s attorney, Diane Toscano, previously announced the teacher’s intention to sue the school division, and laid out a timeline of warnings about the boy having a gun on the day of the shooting.

But the official three-page notice of claim – which Toscano sent to the school division Jan. 24 – provides more details of events and previous interactions school staffers had with the boy.

The claim also for the first time discloses the administrator Zwerner’s lawyers say failed to act on stark warnings that the boy had a gun in school, naming “Assistant Principal Parker.” The school district identified the school’s assistant principal as Dr. Ebony Parker in announcing her resignation effective Tuesday.

“Three different times Assistant Principal Parker was warned by concerned teachers or employees that the shooter had a gun on him,” the claim says. “The tragedy was entirely preventable if Assistant Principal Parker had done her job and acted when she had knowledge of imminent danger.”

Instead, in the middle of class that afternoon – as Zwerner sat at a reading table and the boy at his desk – he pulled a gun from his hoodie pocket and shot her, the claim says.

The Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot obtained the claim notice – sometimes referred to as an “intent to sue” – from the school division under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Attempts to reach Parker this week were unsuccessful, and it could not be immediately determined whether she has an attorney. Len Wallin, director of legal services for Newport News Public Schools, did not return phone calls on whether the division will represent Parker or hire an outside firm to do so – or whether she’s on her own.

Parker began with the school district in 2008 and was Richneck’s assistant principal since March of 2021, said Michelle Price, a spokeswoman for Newport News schools. Price declined to comment on Zwerner’s notice of claim, citing the ongoing investigation, and school board chair Lisa Surles-Law did not return calls.

Under Virginia law, anyone with a claim against a government entity – including school districts – is required to provide a “notice of claim” within six months of an injury. That allows the agency or school district to investigate the cases before lawsuits are filed.

The records show two other claim notices were filed, on Monday, by lawyers representing other students at the school – one of whom was a student in Zwerner’s class.

That claim says the school division “did not take reasonable and appropriate actions” to allow that student “the opportunity to attend a safe school environment.” The student was “emotionally harmed” by witnessing the shooting, the claim maintains.

The notice filed on Zwerner’s behalf expands on details Toscano provided at a Jan. 25 news conference and delves into problems with the shooter.

The claim said the account “is based on extensive interviews with people with direct knowledge of these events.” While the claim identifies Parker, it does not identify other teachers or staff by name. Here is a series of events as outlined in the claim:

• Between 11:15 and 11:30 a.m. Jan. 6, Zwerner went to Parker’s office to tell her the 6-year-old student seemed more “off” than usual and was in a “violent mood.” The boy had threatened to beat up a kindergartner and “angrily stared down” a security officer in the lunchroom.

• At about 11:45 a.m., another teacher – Teacher 2 – was told the 6-year-old had a gun in his backpack before going outside for recess. That teacher took it upon herself to search the boy’s backpack at 12:30 p.m. Although that teacher didn’t find a weapon, Zwerner told her she was “concerned that the shooter had the gun” because she saw the boy “take something out of his backpack and put it in his pocket” just before the search. The first grader was wearing a hoodie, which typically has large front pockets.

• Teacher 2 went to Parker to voice the concern, but the claim contends Parker dismissed the concern by saying the boy “has small pockets” – meaning he couldn’t possibly have the gun. The claim contends Parker should have called the police at that time., but instead “chose to do absolutely nothing.”

• About 1 p.m., one of Zwerner’s students told a different Richneck teacher – Teacher 3 – the boy showed him the gun at recess, and “threatened to shoot that student if he told anyone.” Teacher 3 “kept that student in her class because he was so upset,” and then called the Richneck administration office.

• Teacher 3 told a colleague – Teacher 4 – about what happened. But when Teacher 4 went to Parker, he said the boy’s bookbag “had already been searched.”

• A guidance counselor also approached Parker, seeking permission to search the boy further. But Parker denied the request “because the shooter’s mother would be arriving soon” to pick him up, the claim asserted.

“The shooter spent his entire recess with a gun in his pocket, a gun that was loaded and ready to fire, with his hand in that pocket while lots of first-grade students played,” the claim said.

While sitting at his desk roughly 45 minutes later – about 2 p.m. – the boy pulled a handgun from his hoodie and shot Zwerner, police said. One round went through her hand and struck her in the upper chest.

Police Chief Steve Drew said police weren’t told about a report of a gun on school grounds until it was too late.

Police have said the gun, a Taurus 9mm, was legally purchased by the boy’s mother and that he brought it to school in his backpack. Through an attorney, the boy’s family has said the firearm was secured with a gun lock and stored on the top shelf of a bedroom closet.

Although the bullet is still lodged inside Zwerner, she was released from Riverside Regional Medical Center the week of Jan. 17. But her “psychological wounds cut deeply and remain fresh,” the claim says.

Failing to take seriously the report of a gun at the school is “even more astonishing” given the boy’s difficult history at Richneck, the claim filed by Zwerner’s lawyers contends.

“The shooter had been removed from the school a year prior after he choked his teacher until she couldn’t breathe,” the claim says.

At the start of this school year, the claim says, the boy “constantly cursed at the staff and teachers,” and one day “took off his belt on the playground and chased kids trying to whip them.” That led to the 6-year-old being put on a modified schedule.

Finally, the claim says, the boy was suspended Jan. 4 – two days before the shooting – “because he slammed Ms. Zwerner’s phone, breaking it,” and “cursed at guidance counselors.” That resulted in a one-day suspension.

Further details about those allegations were not included in the notice of claim, and the Toscano Law Group declined to elaborate Friday.

Price said Parker began as a teacher at the Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News in 2008 and began teaching at McIntosh Elementary School in 2017. She became assistant principal at Newsome Park Elementary School in 2018, moving to Richneck in March 2021.

The school’s principal at the time of the shooting, Briana Foster-Newton, wasn’t notified the 6-year-old had brought a gun to school that day, her attorney said Thursday. Foster-Newton continues to work for the school district, but in a different capacity.

James Ellenson, an attorney for the 6-year-old’s mother, has said the boy “needed to be protected from himself,” and it was incumbent on the school system to do so. If the assertions by Zwerner’s lawyers against the school division are true, he said, “the school system failed the child.”

He declined to comment Friday on the allegations detailed in the notice of claim.