Richneck Elementary ignored evidence the 6-year-old had a gun, attorney says

Officials at a Virginia school were warned on three separate occasions by teachers or staff that a six-year-old boy had possessed a gun or made threats but had done nothing the day he shot his first-grader in class, the attorney for the school said teacher on Wednesday.

Attorney Diane Toscano claimed the shooting of 25-year-old Abigail Zwerner could have been avoided had administrators taken the proper steps to protect the schoolgirl during an announcement that Zwerner had filed a lawsuit against the Newport News school board, after the search firearm.

“This tragedy was entirely preventable if the school administrators responsible for school safety had done their part and taken action when they were aware of an imminent threat,” Toscano said.

A spokesman for the Newport News school district did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the claims, and the principal and vice principal at Richneck Elementary School could not be immediately reached for interviews.

Toscano said Zwerner first sounded the alarm about the boy nearly three hours before the Jan. 6 shooting, and outlined the day’s events during a news conference that were the lawyer’s first comments since the incident that drew national attention. Zwerner was not present at the briefing.

Toscano said Zwerner told a school administrator that between 11:15 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 6, the 6-year-old threatened to spank another child. Toscano said the school did not call security and remove the student from the classroom.

Around 12:30 p.m., after apparently receiving a warning that the boy had a gun, another teacher searched his backpack and tagged the school administration, Toscano said.

“The teacher then tells the manager that she thinks the boy put the gun in his pocket before he went on recess,” Toscano said. “The administrator downplayed the teacher’s report and the possibility of a gun, saying, ‘Well, he has small pockets,'” Toscano said.

Toscano called the school administrator’s reaction “outrageous” and said the school administrator should have contacted the police to protect the school.

Toscano said just after 1 p.m., a third teacher told administrators about a crying and frightened student who “bravely confessed” to his teacher that the boy showed him the gun at recess and threatened to shoot him if he tell someone. Toscano said administrators again took no action or notified authorities.

Newport News police said they were never briefed on the reports of a gun prior to the shooting.

A fourth employee who heard about the gun asked an administrator for permission to search the boy less than an hour before the shooting, but was denied and told to “wait out the situation as the school day was almost over,” Toscano said .

Toscano did not name the administrator or administrators who allegedly did not act.

The shooting happened just after 2 p.m. as the school day drew to a close, Newport News police said. The boy pulled out a gun and shot Zwerner dead as she was giving a lesson, police said.

Although he was shot in the hand and chest, Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said at a news conference after the shooting that Zwerner was “the last person to leave class.” Drew said surveillance video showed the teacher turning around after leaving to make sure “every one of those students was safe.”

“I think she saved lives because I don’t know what else would have happened if those kids stayed in that room,” Drew said.

Toscano said Zwerner is now at home after being treated in hospital but will have lasting physical and mental scars. Toscano said she was encouraged by the support for her across the country.

“Abby Zwerner is the best of us,” said Toscano. “An upbeat, dedicated and caring primary school teacher who has endured the unthinkable.”

Zwerner’s shooting has sparked outrage in Newport News.

Parents and teachers have complained about how school administrators have dealt more generally with shootings and safety issues on the city’s campus, where three shootings have taken place since late 2021.

The school board is meeting Wednesday night to vote on a separation agreement for principal George Parker III, who was widely criticized after the shooting. The board is also to appoint an interim superintendent.

The Newport News school board votes with the superintendent on a separation agreement after the shooting

Zwerner had repeatedly asked administrators for help for the boy, but school officials downplayed warnings about his behavior from her and other teachers, including an incident in which he threatened to set a teacher on fire and watch her die, according to News from Teachers obtained from The Washington Post.

Screenshots of an online discussion between Parker and school staff show educators raised the alarm about the 6-year-old and sought help throughout the school year.

“She had asked for help,” wrote a staffer in this chat

“Several times,” came another message.

A separate account of the school’s handling of the boy by a Richneck teacher, also obtained by The Post, claimed administrators had concerns about the boy’s behavior and the school’s inability to address itself adequately caring for him.

The school district has said it will purchase 90 metal detectors to install at all of its schools, purchase clear backpacks for students, and make additional security improvements in the wake of the incident.

Police said the boy brought the gun from home in his backpack and the firearm was legally purchased from the boy’s mother. A lawyer for the boy’s family said it was kept on the top shelf of the mother’s closet with a trigger lock.

Police declined to comment on the family’s characterization of the gun being seized.

The 6-year-old who allegedly shot the Virginia teacher used a gun legally purchased from his mother, police say

Police are still investigating the case and have not announced any charges. Legal experts say the 6-year-old is unlikely to be charged as children under the age of 7 are believed to be unable to form an intention to carry out an illegal act. Police said they are exploring the possibility of charging the boy’s mother for failing to secure the gun.

The boy’s family members expressed their condolences to Zwerner in a statement last week, saying their son suffers from an unspecified “acute disability.”

“Our hearts go out to our son’s teacher and we pray for her healing after such an unimaginable tragedy as she selflessly ministered to our son and the children at school,” the family statement said. “She worked diligently and compassionately to support our family while we searched for the best education and learning environment for our son. We thank her for her courage, grace and sacrifice.”

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