Administrators at a school in Newport News, Virginia were allegedly warned three times in that a 6-year-old student had a gun and had made threats to use it, but they neglected to act before he shot his teacher later that day, putting her in critical condition, the teacher’s lawyer said Wednesday.
Richneck Elementary School teacher Abigail Zwerner, 25, was the sole victim of the shooting on Jan. 6, 2023, and although she survived, her lawyer Diane Toscano claims that the shooting was “entirely preventable” if Newport News School District administrators had taken proper measures to investigate and handle the threat. She added that Zwerner intends to sue the school district.
“On that day, over the course of a few hours, three different times—three times—school administration was warned by concerned teachers and employees that the boy had a gun on him at the school and was threatening people. But the administration could not be bothered,” Toscano said at a press conference gathering Wednesday.
“Were they not so paralyzed by apathy they could have prevented this tragedy,” Toscano said, adding that administrators didn’t call the police, remove the boy from class or place the school under lockdown.
On the day of the shooting, Toscano said Zwerner, following protocol, notified school administrators around 11:15-11:30 AM that morning that a 6-year-old, who would later shoot Zwerner, had threatened to beat up another student. Toscano said that the school administration didn’t call security or remove the student from the classroom.
Another teacher apparently received a warning that the boy had a gun, and approached a school administrator at 12:30 PM, saying that she had searched the boy’s bookbag, following protocol, but suspected that he put the gun in his pocket and went out for recess. The administrator allegedly responded saying, “Well, he has little pockets.”
Just after 1 P.M., a third teacher told administrators that another student, crying and fearful, admitted to the teacher that he had seen the gun at recess, and the shooter threatened to shoot him if he told anybody, according to Toscano.
A fourth school employee who heard about the danger asked an administrator for permission to conduct a search of the child, but was denied and told to wait the situation out because the school day was almost over, Toscano said.
Shortly after 2 P.M., just as the school day was ending, the boy pulled out the gun and shot Zwerner in the hand and chest while she was teaching a lesson, according to Newport News police, who also said that Zwerner evacuated all the other students from the classroom after she was shot.
Since the shooting, the school district’s superintendent, George Parker, has come under criticism by parents who call for his resignation or firing. Six days after the shooting, Parker admitted that at least one administrator had been told that the boy may have a gun the day of the shooting. On Wednesday, the Newport News School Board will meet to discuss a separation agreement and severance for the superintendent, Newport News Public Schools did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.
When the Newport News School District sends a message that “teachers are expendable, that this is just a hazard of the job if you teach at Newport News, their response will hover over this school district and this community for decades,” Toscano said.
“Since they can’t roll back time and undo the callousness of the bureaucracy, they can do the right thing and admit what went wrong and fix it,” she added.
Toscano said that since the shooting, Zwerner has been home recovering and “gaining strength every day,” but that Zwerner was between surgeries and physical therapy appointments and the bullet from the shooting remains dangerously inside Zwerner’s body. And while her physical condition is improving, Toscano said Zwerner’s “psychological conditions cut deeply and remain fresh.”
“Abby Zwerner is the best of us, an optimistic, dedicated and caring elementary school teacher who endured the unthinkable; being shot purposely by a 6-year-old student in front of her first grade class while teaching,” Toscano said.
According to a letter previously released by the shooter’s family, the gun belonged to the boy’s mother and they had stored it in a secure location. Newport News police confirmed that his mother had legally purchased the gun. The commonwealth attorney’s office will decide if the mother will face any charges.
The letter also stated that the six-year-old boy has an “acute disability and was under a care plan at the school 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 instance where neither parent accompanied the boy. Following the shooting, the boy received hospital care and “the treatment he needs,” according to the letter.
On Wednesday, James Ellenson, an attorney for the child’s family, said in a statement that they “continue to pray for Ms. Zwerner and wish her a complete and full recovery.”