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Lawyers for Virginia teacher shot by 6-year-old file $40M suit detailing how school allegedly ignored warnings

Lawyers for Virginia teacher Abigail Zwerner, who was shot by a 6-year-old student, contend administrators and the board ignored warnings of the boy's "history of random violence."

The lawyers representing Virginia first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner, who was shot by her 6-year-old student in their classroom earlier this year, filed a $40 million lawsuit on Monday. 

The complaint, filed in Newport News Circuit Court, contends that the district and school administrators shrugged off multiple warning signs, including from other staffers who told Richneck Elementary School's then-assistant principal Dr. Ebony Parker that the boy might be carrying a gun the day of the Jan. 6 shooting. 

The filing, which also names the Newport News School Board, former Superintendent George Parker III and former principal Briana Foster Newton, alleges they were aware the boy "had a history of random violence," but failed to take appropriate action to protect Zwerner. While in kindergarten, the same child was accused of strangling another teacher a year prior. And while on the playground, the complaint says the boy pulled the dress of a female student who had fallen and "began to touch the child inappropriately until reprimanded by a teacher."

The boy had been transferred to a different institution in the district but was permitted to return for the next school year when he was enrolled in Zwerner's class.


Last fall, he was placed on a modified schedule for "chasing students around the playground with a belt in an effort to whip them with it, as well as cursing at staff and teachers," the lawsuit says, according to NBC News. Due to "his violent tendencies," at least one parent was supposed to attend school with him. 

"Teachers' concerns with John Doe's behavior was regularly brought to the attention of Richneck Elementary School administration, and the concerns were always dismissed," the suit says. "Often when he was taken to the school office to address his behavior, he would return to the classroom shortly thereafter with some type of reward, such as a piece of candy."

The complaint details how two days before the shooting, the child received a one-day suspension for grabbing Zwerner's phone and smashing it into the ground. 

He returned Jan. 6, when Zwerner again warned the assistant principal the child was in a "violent mood" and threatened to assault a classmate. The child was not accompanied by a parent that day, and the school did not assign an alternative one-on-one companion. Other teachers warned Parker their students spotted the boy with a gun at recess, but the assistant principal allegedly "forbade" them from searching the boy's backpack a second time, believed his pockets were too small to hide a handgun and said his mother would pick him up at dismissal. 

"Abby is a courageous young lady," Zwerner's attorney, Diane Toscano, said in an appearance on NBC's "Today." "So brave. You were able to hear from her two weeks ago. She is really pushing through. Every day is different and challenging. She’s going to be dealing with this for her entire life. The physical, the emotional trauma, but she is ready for what we’re doing today. We’re going to hold those accountable for what happened to her. For the tragedy that was completely preventable." 


"We know for a fact that there were at least three opportunities for them to stop this from happening," Zwerner's second attorney, Jeffrey Breit, told host Savannah Guthrie. "And how many people were involved in the decision-making will be a part of our discovery, obviously. But right now, the allegations are, and we believe the facts will support, the fact that they knew that they had three complaints and then eventually a teacher comes down there and says one of the students has actually seen the gun. At that point in time, you have a ticking time bomb in the school and the school failed to do anything about it."

The attorneys said the lawsuit challenges the school board's argument that the shooting comes as an assumed risk of being a teacher and is a worker's compensation matter. 

"No 6-year-old student is really going to be a risk of shooting a teacher. It’s not a part of their job. It’s not a night 7/11 worker. And so I think the worker’s comp defense will fail," Breit said.

"That’s what they’ve maintained up until today. That is just part of the job. It’s an assumption of the job that a first-grade teacher is going to be shot by their own student, a 6-year-old," Toscano added. "That is unacceptable. That’s outrageous. And that’s not what happened here." 

Zwerner, 25, said the gunshot went through her left hand, rupturing the middle bone, index finger and thumb. 

It entered her upper chest, where scarring and bullet fragments remain. Prosecutors did not pursue charges against the boy. 

"There’s some things that I’ll never forget, and I just will never forget the look on his face that he gave me while he pointed the gun directly at me," Zwerner told NBC on March 21, the first time she spoke out following the shooting. "That's something that I will never forget. It's changed me. It's changed my life."

 "I was terrified. In that moment, my initial reaction was, ‘Your kids need to get out of here. This is not a safe classroom anymore. And then you need to go find help for yourself,'" Zwerner said. "That was pretty shocking itself, but I just wanted to get my babies out of there." 

Guthrie noted how the police chief afterward commended Zwerner's actions as heroic, as the teacher safely evacuated the other students and made it to the office before collapsing. 

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