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Virginia teacher shot by a 6-year-old student files a $40 million lawsuit

Messages of support for teacher Abby Zwerner, who was shot by a 6-year-old student, grace the front door of Richneck Elementary School Newport News, Va. on Jan. 9.
John C. Clark
/
AP
Messages of support for teacher Abby Zwerner, who was shot by a 6-year-old student, grace the front door of Richneck Elementary School Newport News, Va. on Jan. 9.

RICHMOND, Va. — A first-grade Virginia teacher who was shot and seriously wounded by her 6-year-old student filed a lawsuit Monday seeking $40 million in damages from school officials, accusing them of gross negligence for allegedly ignoring multiple warnings on the day of the shooting that the boy had a gun and was in a "violent mood."

Abby Zwerner, a 25-year-old teacher at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia was shot in the hand and chest on Jan. 6 as she sat at a reading table in her classroom. She spent nearly two weeks in the hospital and has had four surgeries since the shooting.

The shooting rattled the military shipbuilding community and sent shock waves around the country, with many wondering how a child so young could get access to a gun and shoot his teacher.

The lawsuit names the Newport News School Board and several school district officials, including former Superintendent George Parker III, as defendants.

Michelle Price, a spokesperson for the school board, Lisa Surles-Law, chair of the school board, and other board members did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment on the lawsuit. The former superintendent did not immediately return a message seeking comment left on his cellphone.

No one, including the boy, has been charged in the shooting. The superintendent was fired by the school board after the shooting, while the assistant principal resigned. The principal was reassigned to another job within the school district. The board also voted to install metal detectors in every school in the district, beginning with Richneck, and to purchase clear backpacks for all students.

Lawsuit alleges concerns were regularly brought to school administration

In the lawsuit, Zwerner's attorneys say all of the defendants 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.

"All Defendants knew that John Doe attacked students and teachers alike, and his motivation to injure was directed toward anyone in his path, both in and out of school, and was not limited to teachers while at the school," the lawsuit states.

School officials removed the boy from Richneck and sent him to another school for the remainder of the year, but allowed him to return to Richneck for first grade in the fall of 2022, the lawsuit states. He was placed on a modified schedule "because he was chasing students around the playground with a belt in an effort to whip them with it," and was cursing staff and teachers, it says. Under the modified schedule, one of the boy's parents was required to accompany him during the school day.

"Teachers' concerns with John Doe's behavior (were) regularly brought to the attention of Richneck Elementary School administration, and the concerns were always dismissed," the lawsuit states. Often after he was taken to the office, "he would return to class shortly thereafter with some type of reward, such as a piece of candy," according to the lawsuit.

The boy's parents did not agree for him to be put in special education classes where he would be with other students with behavioral issues, the lawsuit states.

Zwerner suffered permanent bodily injuries, physical pain, mental anguish, lost earnings and other damages, the lawsuit states. It seeks $40 million in compensatory damages.

Last month, Newport News prosecutor Howard Gwynn said his office will not criminally charge the boy because he wouldn't understand the legal system and what a charge means. Gwynn has yet to decide if any adults will be charged.

The boy used his mother's gun, which police said was purchased legally. An attorney for the boy's family has said that the firearm was secured on a closet shelf and had a lock on it.

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