School ‘failed to act’ after 3 warnings boy had gun on day of shooting, attorney says
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Richneck Elementary School teacher Abigail Zwerner intends to file a lawsuit against the Newport News school division after school administrators “failed to act” before she was shot by her 6-year-old student, according to Zwerner’s attorney.
Diane Toscano, speaking Wednesday during a news conference at the Marriott at City Center, claimed school administrators had been notified of concerns regarding the student multiple times on the morning of the shooting. Zwerner, hit in the hand and chest, is recovering at home after a being treated at Riverside Regional Medical Center.“Abby and the other teachers tried to do the right thing on Jan. 6,” Toscano said.
The Newport News school system was notified Wednesday morning of Zwerner’s intent to file a lawsuit.She added that on Jan. 6, “concerned teachers and staff” warned school administrators that the boy had a gun at school and was threatening other students. However, Toscano said, “the administration could not be bothered.”
She presented a timeline of what happened that day prior to the shooting, though she did not say how the information was obtained.
According to Toscano, Zwerner told administrators at 11:30 a.m. a student was threatening “to beat up” another student. About an hour later, another teacher reportedly searched the book bag of the student suspected of bringing a gun to school. The teacher then told administrators she believed the boy had taken the gun out to recess in his pocket.
Toscano claimed administrators told the teacher, “Well, he has little pockets.”
Toscano said a boy later that afternoon went crying to a teacher, saying another student had shown him a gun and threatened him if he told anyone.
Another teacher reportedly asked school officials if he could search the boy but was denied “because the school day was almost over,” Toscano said. Another hour later, the shooting occurred.
A division spokesperson, Michelle Price, said she was unable to provide a comment on these allegations because “the school division’s investigation is ongoing.”
Police say the 6-year-old shot Zwerner while she was teaching. Zwerner was released from the hospital last week, though Toscano said the bullet “remains dangerously inside her body.”
“The road to full recovery will be long, and as her physical condition improves, the psychological wounds cut deeply and remain fresh,” she said.
Workers’ compensation laws can complicate lawsuits against workplaces stemming from injuries suffered on the job. Employees who are hurt at work are barred from suing employers if they qualify for workers’ comp payments.
But a local personal injury attorney predicted that workers’ comp law won’t “be an impediment” to a claim against Newport News Public Schools in this case.
”In order for a claim to be barred by workers’ comp, you have to show that the injury came about from something that you could reasonably expect to have happened at your job,” said the attorney, Robert Haddad of Virginia Beach. “I don’t think it can reasonably be expected that one of the injuries you’re gonna suffer at your job as a teacher is getting shot by one of your students.”
The case is even stronger, Haddad said, if school administrators had knowledge of concerning behavior by the student before the shooting.
“It sounds like she alerted folks that she had concerns about this specific student harming her,” Haddad said of Zwerner. If that’s the case, he said, then the school system “is in trouble.”
Lawyers for Newport News Public Schools could raise workers’ comp law as a bar to litigation, he said, just as Walmart filed a motion in federal court citing that law in an attempt to block lawsuits arising from the November mass shooting at a Chesapeake store. But Haddad expects the lawsuits in the Walmart case to ultimately be allowed to proceed, just as he does in the Richneck case.
If there’s no reason to believe that “your job makes you particularly susceptible to a violent incident,” he said, workers’ comp law isn’t a roadblock.
Richneck Elementary has been closed since the shooting, though it is set to reopen Monday following several staff meetings, a virtual town hall for families and focus group sessions with parents.
The school division also announced plans to install state-of-the-art metal detectors at each of its schools. Richneck will have one installed before students return, according to school officials.
An outpouring of outrage and criticism has come from community members and teachers since the shooting — the third to occur on Newport News school property in less than 18 months. Many said the school system has failed in addressing “out-of-control” student behavior.
Newport News Superintendent George Parker could be voted out by the school board Wednesday evening during a special meeting to discuss the “assignment, appointment and performance of specific administrators in the school division.” He was hired in 2018 and previously served as superintendent of Caroline County Public Schools in Virginia. He also was an educator in Virginia Beach City Public Schools.