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Lawyer: Va. school administrators were warned 3 times the day boy shot teacher

FILE - 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, 2023. AP Photo/John C. Clark, File


NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Concerned staff warned administrators at a Virginia elementary school three times that a 6-year-old boy had a gun and was threatening other students in the hours before he shot and wounded a teacher, but the administration “was paralyzed by apathy” and didn’t call police, remove the boy from class or lock down the school, the wounded teacher’s lawyer said Wednesday.

Diane Toscano, an attorney for Abigail Zwerner, said during a news conference that she has notified the school board in Newport News that the 25-year-old teacher at Richneck Elementary School plans to sue the school district over the Jan. 6 shooting, which left Zwerner with serious injuries.

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“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.

She said that Zwerner first went to an administrator at around 11:15 a.m. on the day of the shooting and said the boy had threatened to beat up another child, but no action was taken.

About an hour later, another teacher went to an administrator and said she had taken it upon herself to search the boy’s bookbag, but warned that she thought the boy had put the gun in his pocket before going outside for recess, Toscano said.

“The administrator downplayed the report from the teacher and the possibility of a gun, saying — and I quote — ‘Well, he has little pockets,’ ” Toscano said.

Shortly after 1 p.m., another teacher told an administrator that a different student who was “crying and fearful” said the boy showed him the gun during recess and threatened to shoot him if he told anyone. Again, no action was taken, she said.

When another employee who had heard the boy might have a gun asked an administrator to search the boy, he was turned down, Toscano said.

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“He was told to wait the situation out because the school day was almost over,” she said.

About an hour later, “Abby Zwerner was shot in front of those horrified kids, and the school and community are living the nightmare, all because the school administration failed to act,” Toscano said.

“Were they not so paralyzed by apathy, they could have prevented this tragedy,” she said.

School district spokesperson Michelle Price and School Board Chair Lisa Surles-Law did not immediately return calls seeking comment on Toscano’s allegations.

The shooting raised questions over security at the school and stunned Newport News, a city of about 185,000 people roughly 70 miles (113 kilometers) southeast of Richmond.

Superintendent George Parker III, who has been sharply criticized by parents and teachers in the wake of the shooting, has said that at least one administrator was told on the day of the shooting that the boy might have a weapon, but no weapon was found when his backpack was searched. Police have said that school officials did not tell them about that tip before the shooting, which happened hours later.

Police Chief Steve Drew has repeatedly characterized the shooting as “intentional,” saying the boy aimed at Zwerner and fired one round, striking her in the hand and chest. Zwerner was hospitalized for nearly two weeks but is now recovering at home, Toscano said.

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“The road to full recovery will be long … and the psychological scars will be lasting,” Toscano said.

The boy’s mother legally purchased the gun used in the shooting, police said. The boy’s family said in a statement last week that the gun was “secured.” The family’s attorney, James Ellenson, told The Associated Press that his understanding was that the gun was in the woman’s closet on a shelf well over 6 feet (1.8 meters) high and had a trigger lock that required a key.

The family also said in its statement that the boy has an “acute disability” and was under a care plan “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 when a parent was not in class with him, the family said.

The Newport News School Board will hold a special meeting Wednesday evening to vote on a separation agreement and severance package for Parker, according to a posted agenda. The board is also scheduled to vote on a new interim superintendent.

Associated Press reporter Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Maryland, contributed to this report.

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