Shooting of teacher by 6-year-old ‘avoidable,’ report says; former assistant principal charged

A special grand jury in Virginia has indicted the former assistant principal of Richneck Elementary School on child neglect charges, citing her “shocking” inaction after hearing reports that a 6-year-old student had a gun before the boy shot his teacher in a classroom on Jan. 6, 2023.

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Authorities released a report penned by the 11-member panel on Wednesday, in which they laid out the circumstances leading to the shooting of first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner. They noted several times in which administrators — particularly assistant principal Ebony Parker — could have intervened and prevented the “tragic and avoidable event.” At the time, Parker was the main contact for school employees as principal Briana Foster-Newton was out of the office in meetings.

“Dr. Parker, in her duties and employment as Assistant Principal at Richneck Elementary had the responsibility to care for the children in Ms. Zwerner’s classroom and throughout the school,” the panel said in its report.

The special grand jury added, “Dr. Parker was not only well aware of the child’s history but an active participant in the decisions that led to why the child was inappropriately in Ms. Zwerner’s classroom on January 6, 2023. … Most importantly, she then neglected to take any action upon receiving four reports of a potentially dangerous threat.”

Behavioral issues forced child to change schools in kindergarten

The 6-year-old had attended Richneck for kindergarten but was forced to transfer schools after he choked a teacher, according to the special grand jury’s report. The teacher said she went to administrators, who came up with the transfer plan, but she found him in her classroom eating breakfast the next day. She said that she went back to administrators and told Parker that either she or the student would have to leave, after which the child was sent to another school.

Still, he returned for first grade, with Parker telling another teacher that his mother had earlier taken him to Chicago for school. That was never verified, and the boy never completed kindergarten, according to the special grand jury.

Despite documented behavioral issues, he was put in Zwerner’s class.

“The child immediately exhibited behavioral problems similar to the year prior,” according to the report made public Wednesday. “He was reckless, physically aggressive, used profanity toward the teacher and even choked another student.”

Days before shooting, child was suspended after damaging Zwerner’s phone

To address his behavioral issues, school officials and the boy’s mother came up with a plan that saw his hours in school reduced. His parents were also made to sit with him through some classes, a choice that the special grand jury criticized.

“A basic background check was not even conducted to determine if either of the child’s parents could be a potential safety threat to the children,” according to the report. The special grand jury noted that “the parents of the other children in that class did not know that an unverified parent, one with a criminal history, was sitting in class with their children.”

Under the new plan, the boy’s behavior improved, and he began attending full-day classes again on Jan. 3, 2023. One day later, he picked up Zwerner’s phone off a table and slammed it to the ground “while staring her down,” causing the phone case to fly off and cracking the screen.

He was suspended for one day.

Boy had returned from suspension on day of shooting

The special grand jury said the boy was aggressive again when he returned to school on Jan. 6, 2023, threatening to beat up a kindergartener and “staring down a security guard and moving toward her like he was ready to pounce.” Zwerner took her concerns to Parker, saying that the child “was in a violent mood.”

“Dr. Parker did not respond,” according to the report. “Dr. Parker did not look away from her computer screen. Dr. Parker did not acknowledge Ms. Zwerner’s presence.”

After Zwerner left, Parker told the school’s reading specialist, Amy Kovac, to tell Zwerner that she could call the student’s mom at any time and tell her to pick him up early. As Kovac was walking in the hall afterward, two students ran up to her and said that the student had a gun in his bag. Kovac went into Zwerner’s classroom and asked the child if he had a gun, then asked if she could search his backpack. When he said no, she refrained, but she sat with him for about 45 minutes and watched him.

Parker dismissed reports of gun on campus, special grand jury says

Afterward, Kovac reported the incident to Parker, but the assistant principal “took no further action, and did not appear to show concern,” according to the report.

Zwerner texted Kovac later to say that the child had put on an oversized hooded jacket and put his hands inside. Kovac then searched his backpack but did not find anything. She told Parker about the incident, to which the assistant principal said, “He has little pockets.”

“The child was now at recess, with thirty plus other small children running around the playground, with a firearm tucked into his jacket,” according to the report.

After recess, another teacher called in one of the child’s friends to try to determine what was happening.

“The friend was visibly scared and shaking,” according to the report. “He said the child would hurt him if he told her. She encouraged him to tell her. He said that the child had a gun and that the child had showed him the bullets.”

The information was relayed to Parker, who said that the boy’s backpack had already been searched. A school counselor next spoke with the friend, who repeated that the child had bullets and had threatened him. The counselor told Parker and asked if someone could check his person.

“Dr. Parker said no,” according to the report. “Dr. Parker said hold off. Dr. Parker said his mom would come pick him up soon.”

Child shoots Zwerner, sparking panic

Just before 2 p.m., as Zwerner was sitting at her classroom’s reading table, the child turned toward her, pulled the firearm out of his pocket, pointed it at her and – while standing less than 6 feet from the teacher – pulled the trigger, shooting Zwerner.

“Ms. Zwerner looked down to see a pool of blood forming,” the report said. “The child continued to stare at her, not changing his emotional facial expression as he tried to shoot again. The firearm had jammed due to his lack of strength on the first shot inhibiting him from shooting Ms. Zwerner or anyone else again. The firearm had a full magazine with seven additional bullets ready to fire if not for the firearm jamming.”

Kovac, having heard the shot, ran into Zwerner’s classroom and pulled the child away from the gun. She sat in a chair and wrapped her body around him, holding him until authorities arrived.

When Parker and the school’s principal learned of the shooting, they shut their office doors, leaving the receptionist and a student and his grandmother who were with her to fend for themselves. Despite a lack of direction from administrators, the receptionist called 911 and announced a lockdown over the school’s PA system. Zwerner made it to the main office, where she passed out in front of the principal’s door.

The grandmother who was at the reception desk applied pressure with a rag to Zwerner’s wound until paramedics arrived.

Authorities respond to the shooting

Law enforcement officials responded quickly to reports of the shooting, though they were hampered by a broken buzzer that made it difficult for people to get into the school, according to the special grand jury. Almost a full minute passed before a custodian roaming the halls saw deputies and let them in.

Authorities found the child with Kovac and secured the firearm. The boy punched Kovac in the face before he was removed from the building. He admitted that he got the loaded firearm from out of his mother’s purse, according to the special grand jury.

Several issues ‘could have brought on unspeakable tragedy’ for students

The panel noted several security issues at Richneck during the 2022-2023 school year.

The campus had no full-time school resource officer, but instead shared one with another school. In the case of an emergency, there was no clear way to contact the school resource officer, according to the report.

A buzzer that went to the main office when people wanted to get into the building was broken for weeks before the January 2023 shooting, with people having to knock or pound on the door to get someone’s attention. The issue delayed police response on the day of the shooting.

None of the lockdown drills required by school administration had been performed for the school year as of Jan. 6, 2023, according to the report. Classrooms for second graders also had no doors and used partitions in the place of permanent walls, meaning that students would have to walk across and down the hallway and into a safe room in the case of an emergency.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn said authorities “acknowledge the Special Grand Jury’s recommendations for substantial changes to protect students going forward and note that the school district, now led by Superintendent Dr. Michelle Mitchell, has already started implementing additional safety measures.”

Investigation into whether school officials obstructed justice continues

Authorities said they continue to investigate questions raised in the special grand jury’s report, including whether people who worked for the school system obstructed justice. The special grand jury had particular questions about records kept of the shooter’s behavioral issues, most of which appeared to have gone missing after shots were fired.

Officials said they would not comment further on charges against Parker. If she’s convicted, she could face a sentence of up to 5 years in prison for each of the eight charges filed against her.