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Lawyer: Admins were warned 3 times the day boy shot teacher

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School Shooting-Newport-News

Lawyer Diane Toscano, who represents Abigail Zwerner, the Newport News teacher who was shot by a six-year-old student, reads a statement to media on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Newport News, Va.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — 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 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.

"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.

The school's superintendent, George Parker III, will leave his role after reaching an agreement with the district to leave the job, school officials announced Wednesday.

The school board announced his departure following a closed-door special meeting Wednesday evening. The board voted 5-1 in favor of the separation agreement and severance package. Effective Feb. 1, Parker will be “relieved of his duties” as superintendent.

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

About an hour later, another teacher went to an administrator and said she took it upon herself to search the boy's book bag, 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 heard the boy might have a gun asked an administrator to search the boy, he was turned down, Toscano said.

"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 declined to comment.

"Since the school division's investigation is ongoing, I cannot comment on the statements presented by Ms. Zwerner's lawyer at this time," Price wrote in an email.

Teacher allegedly shot by 6-year-old warned Newport News school officials child had a gun, her lawyer says

Messages of support for teacher Abby Zwerner, who was shot by a 6-year-old student, grace the front door of Richneck Elementary School on Jan. 9 in Newport News, Virginia.

School Board Chair Lisa Surles-Law did not immediately return a call 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 about 70 miles southeast of Richmond.

Parker, the superintendent, 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.

Cindy Connell, a middle school teacher in Newport News, called the events described by Toscano "beyond horrifying."

"This is just another example of administrators not listening to the concerns of teachers, and the only reason we're talking about this one is because Abby Zwerner got shot," Connell said.

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 almost two weeks but is now recovering at home, Toscano said.

"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, said his understanding was that the gun was in the woman's closet on a shelf well over 6 feet 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.

Ellenson released a statement Wednesday saying they "continue to pray for Ms. Zwerner and wish her a complete and full recovery."

"Our hearts go out to all involved," Ellenson said.

The school, which has been closed since the shooting, is scheduled to reopen next week.

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