NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — A lawsuit filed by Abby Zwerner, the Richneck Elementary teacher who was shot by her 6-year-old student, reveals past concerns about the student’s behavior and describes her account of the harrowing day she was injured by her pupil.
The statement of facts says the student, who remains unnamed in the court documents, had a history of random acts of violence before he shot Zwerner on Jan. 6.
The documents say the defendants named in the lawsuit, including the former superintendent and Richneck principal, were familiar with the student’s behavior. Zwerner’s lawyers further state that the defendants knew he would oftentimes attack students and teachers.
Her legal team also cited an incident when the student was in kindergarten during the 2021-2022 school year. They said he strangled and choked a teacher, leading to his temporary removal from Richneck Elementary, according to the court documents.
The legal team cited another incident about the student’s behavior in kindergarten, in which he allegedly pulled up a female student’s dress after she fell on the playground and touched her inappropriately until a teacher stopped him.
The documents stated the student was removed from Richneck and sent to Denbigh Early Childhood Center during the 2021-2022 school year for his violent behavior. However, Zwerner’s attorneys said the defendants allowed him to attend first grade at Richneck during the following school year.
In the fall of 2022, after the student allegedly chased his peers around the playground with a belt and tried to whip them, the student was placed on a modified schedule, according to the documents — which is something all defendants were allegedly aware of.
Zwerner’s lawyers said the student's schedule entailed one of the his parents accompanying him to school during the day because his parents did not want him placed in special education, where he would be with other children with behavioral issues.
Teachers regularly expressed concerns about the student to the administration, according to court documents. The lawsuit also said that oftentimes, when the student was taken to the office for his behavior, he would shortly return to the classroom with some type of a reward, like a piece of candy.
Keith Marcus, a civil attorney based in Richmond, said that the fact that the child was still in school at the time of the incident involving Zwerner was "shocking" to him.
"Some of the factual allegations are very strong, and they're so strong, they're pretty shocking to me, they would have let this kid stay in the school. But nonetheless, when you read the whole complaint, and you look at the factual allegations that the council has made out, it seems to me that they have a very strong case, particularly against the assistant principal," Marcus said
The court documents also share Zwerner’s account of the day she was shot in greater detail.
Zwerner's lawyers claim the following information in the filed court documents:
- On Jan. 4, two days before the shooting, the student took Zwerner’s cell phone and slammed it on the ground so hard that it shattered. Zwerner took the student to the lead teacher and called school security. School security did not respond, so she called the guidance department. The guidance counselor came to the classroom and the student called them all "bitches." He was suspended for one day.
- On the morning of Jan. 6, the day of the shooting, the student came back to school with his mom, who then left.
- During lunchtime, Zwerner told the then-Assistant Principal of Richneck Elementary Ebony Parker that the student was in a "violent mood" and had threatened to beat up a kindergartner during lunchtime. Parker had no response and didn't even look up at Zwerner when she expressed concern. Another teacher was in the room during this time and witnessed Zwerner being practically ignored.
- Assistant Principal Parker had a reputation for ignoring concerns from teachers. Teachers expressed similar concerns when she was the assistant principal at Newsome Park Elementary School. Teachers said Parker would let students get away with misconduct and students would often brag about getting candy from the assistant principal.
- At 11:45 a.m., two students informed a reading specialist, Amy Kovac, that the student had a gun in his backpack. When Kovac asked the student if he had a gun, he said he did not, but he refused to hand over his backpack and told her he was angry that people were picking on his classmate.
- When recess began at 12:30 p.m., Zwerner told another first-grade teacher, Jennifer West, that she saw the student take something out of his backpack and thought it may be a weapon. West observed the student and his friend and noticed they kept going behind a rock-climbing wall on the playground.
- During recess, Kovac also told Zwerner that she saw the student take something out of his book bag and put it in his hoodie pocket. Kovac searched the student’s backpack but didn't find a weapon.
- Kovac still went to the school office and told Assistant Principal Parker that the student told other kids he had a gun and that Zwerner saw the student put something in his hoodie pocket. Parker responded that the student's pockets were too small to hold a handgun and took no further action.
- West pulled the student's friend aside after recess, who was crying, and told West that he couldn't share what the student told him out of fear of being hurt. The friend then told West that the student showed him a gun in his pocket.
- West kept the friend in her classroom because she feared him being near the student. She then contacted the school’s office. A music teacher, John Sims, answered the phone and told West he would inform Parker of the situation.
- At 1:11 p.m., Sims called West to tell her that he had told Assistant Principal Parker. Parker told Sims that she was aware of the threat and that the student’s backpack had already been searched. No further action was taken, despite clarification that it was believed the gun was on the student's person rather than in the backpack.
- A guidance counselor, Rolonzo Rawles, then asked Assistant Principal Parker for permission to search the student’s person for a firearm. Parker refused to grant permission and said the student’s mother would be arriving soon to pick him up.
- At 1:59 p.m., the student pulled a firearm out of his pocket, aimed it at Zwerner, and shot her while she was seated at her reading table in the classroom.
While Richneck Elementary's head principal at the time, Briana Newton, is included in the lawsuit, the statement of facts does not mention any warnings made directly to her.
In a February news conference, Newton's lawyer, Pamela Branch, claimed the former principal had no idea the student had a firearm on him that day.
"The fact of the matter is that those who were aware that the student may have had a gun on the premises that day did not report this to Mrs. Newton at all," said Branch. "I repeat, Mrs. Newton was unfortunately not one of the administrators who was informed by those in the school that day who had this critical information."
Zwerner is seeking $40 million in damages from the school officials. Court documents claim Zwerner has incurred numerous damages, including bodily injury, mental anguish, physical pain and more. The lawsuit accuses the defendants of gross negligence, and states that they ignored warnings from multiple Richneck teachers about the gun on the day of the shooting.
In the lawsuit, Zwerner's attorneys claim Assistant Principal Parker had a duty to protect the teacher after being warned the student had a gun on three separate times. It goes on to claim that the Newport News School Board condoned the assistant principal's actions and as owners of Richneck Elementary's property, should have known of a lethal firearm being on the premises, making them also liable for the shooting.
Court documents add that the administration failed to contact law enforcement after being warned there was a deadly weapon on school property, which is in violation of Virginia law.
Diane Toscano, one of the attorneys representing Zwerner, says the Newport News school division "failed" her on the day she was shot.
“The Newport News school division had a duty to Abby. But they failed her miserably that day. As a result of their inaction, Abby was shot by a six-year-old student, and she will never be the same. She has endured four surgeries and still has a bullet lodged inside her. In addition to holding the school division accountable for its failures, this lawsuit is a means to deliver justice for Abby in this tragic but entirely preventable situation,” said Toscano.
Zwerner is demanding a trial by jury.