School downplayed warnings about 6-year-old before teacher’s shooting, staffers say

WVEC via ABC/Handout via REUTERS
Police vehicles are seen parked outside Richneck Elementary School, where according to the police, a six-year-old boy shot and wounded a teacher, in Newport News, Virginia, U.S., January 6, 2023, in this screen grab from a handout video.

The Virginia teacher who was shot by a 6-year-old student repeatedly asked administrators for help with the boy but officials downplayed educators’ warnings about his behavior, including dismissing his threat to light a teacher on fire and watch her die, according to messages from teachers obtained by The Washington Post.

The previously unreported incidents raise fresh questions about how Richneck Elementary School in Newport News handled the troubled student before police say he shot Abigail Zwerner as she taught her first-grade class earlier this month. Authorities have called the shooting “intentional” but are still investigating the motive.

Many parents are already outraged over Richneck officials’ management of events before the shooting. Newport News Superintendent George Parker III has said school officials got a tip the boy had a gun that day and searched his backpack, but that staffers never found the weapon before authorities say the 6-year-old shot Zwerner. Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said his department was not contacted about the report that the boy had a weapon before the shooting.

Police and school officials have repeatedly declined to answer questions about the boy’s disciplinary issues or worrisome behaviors the 6-year-old may have exhibited and how school officials responded, citing the child’s age and the ongoing law enforcement investigation. The boy’s family said in a statement he has an “acute disability,” but James Ellenson, an attorney for the family, declined to comment on accounts of the boy’s behavior or how it was handled by the school.

School district spokeswoman Michelle Price said in a phone interview late Friday that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law protecting students’ privacy, prohibits her from releasing information related to the 6-year-old.

“I cannot share any information in a child’s educational record,” she said. “A lot of what you’re asking is part of the child’s educational record, and it’s also a matter of an ongoing police investigation and an internal school investigation. Unfortunately, some of these details I’m not even privy to.”

Screenshots of a conversation held online between school employees and Parker shortly after the shooting show educators claiming that Zwerner raised alarms about the 6-year-old and sought assistance during the school year.

“she had asked for help,” one staffer wrote in that chat, referring to Zwerner.

“several times,” came another message.

“Yes she did.”

“two hours prior”

“all year.”

The messages, which were provided to The Post by the spouse of a Richneck Elementary schoolteacher, do not detail what specific assistance Zwerner sought, or to whom she directed her requests. Zwerner and her family have not returned repeated messages from The Washington Post.

A separate message written by a Richneck teacher, and obtained by The Washington Post from the local teachers union, alleges that school administrators waved away grave concerns about the 6-year-old’s conduct and that the school was overall unable to care for him properly.

The Post obtained the message on the condition the teacher’s identity not be revealed because the union feared she would face retaliation. The teacher declined interview requests through the union, the Newport News Education Association, citing worries of professional consequences and a directive from Newport News schools not to talk to the media about the shooting.

On one occasion, the boy wrote a note telling a teacher he hated her and wanted to light her on fire and watch her die, according to the teacher’s account. Alarmed, the teacher brought the note to the attention of Richneck administrators and was told to drop the matter, according to the account. The date of the incident was not mentioned.

The principal and vice principal of the school did not respond to requests for comment on the teacher’s account.

On a second occasion, the boy threw furniture and other items in class, prompting students to hide beneath their desks, according to the account. Another time, the teacher alleges in her account, the boy barricaded the doors to a classroom, preventing a teacher and students from leaving.

The teacher banged on the classroom door until another teacher from across the hall forced it open from the outside, according to the teacher’s account. It was not clear whether the teacher asked for any specific action from administrators after that incident.

The teacher also described strained resources at the school. The lead special education teacher was frustrated because she has a high caseload, according to the account. Some aides regularly missed work, including for as long as a week at a time.

The teacher further alleged in her account that the boy was not receiving the educational services he needed, that it was difficult to get help with him during outbursts and that he was sometimes seen wandering the school unsupervised.

The boy’s family said in a statement Thursday, the first public remarks his relatives have given about the shooting, that the 6-year-old was “under a care plan” that “included his mother or father attending school with him and accompanying him to class every day.” That stopped the week of the shooting, the statement said.

“We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives,” the statement read.

The teacher’s account dovetails with descriptions of the student’s behavior shared by the spouse of a Richneck teacher and a mother whose child is enrolled in a class located across the hallway from Zwerner’s. Both the spouse and the mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their families’ privacy, said the student was known campuswide for disruptive and violent behavior, and that school employees struggled to manage him in class.

The Post reached out to dozens of other Richneck teaching staff, administrators and parents to try to corroborate the teachers’ allegations, but most have not responded or declined interviews, citing the ongoing police investigation or fear of reprisals.

Drew, the police chief, has said detectives will look into allegations of the student’s troubling conduct before the incident, though he has not confirmed any specific incidents.

James Graves, president of the Newport News Education Association, said the union is investigating safety concerns raised by teachers in the wake of the shooting.

“We want to know what happened so we can protect our members,” Graves said. “They believe and they know the administration should take their concerns more seriously than they did. This could have been prevented.”

Thomas Britton, whose son was taught by Zwerner, said school officials never formally notified parents in the class about issues with the boy who fired the shot.

He said administrators mishandled the shooting, asserting they should have pulled the boy out of class until they had definitively determined whether he possessed a gun, and conducted a more thorough search.

“That was a shocking revelation that not only did he bring the weapon, but somebody gave a tip he had the weapon,” Britton said. “It seems to me it would be completely avoidable at that point.”

Valerie McCandless, a 52-year-old resident of Newport News who sent six kids to Richneck, said her children had a wonderful experience at the school, but she is troubled that the school’s administrators, some of whom she said are relatively new, failed to take preemptive action.

“I don’t think the teachers there are getting support, they’re not getting compassion, they’re not getting answers, they’re not getting listened to,” she said, adding of the shooting, “this was, I believe, God’s way of saying somebody needs to listen to them.”

Similar concerns emerged this week at a packed Newport News school board meeting, during which dozens of parents recounted their disappointment, anger and frustration with security measures at Richneck and other schools in the district. There have been three shootings on school grounds in Newport News since late 2021.

Several teachers said they received no support when they faced violence in the classroom or attacks from students. Some speakers claimed the district is more interested in keeping discipline statistics low than in taking meaningful action to address students’ problems.

A parent of a child in Zwerner’s class said her daughter had been bullied by classmates. She said she struggled to make the school take her concerns seriously and that the Richneck principal once failed to show for a conference about the bullying, although other officials did come.

She said Zwerner defended her daughter.

“Listen to your teachers when they have concerns,” the woman said raising her voice. “Please!”

Parker, the superintendent, said at a meeting with Richneck students that the district is purchasing 90 metal detectors to install at all Newport News schools and acquiring clear backpacks to hand out to students. He has assigned a new administrator to Richneck and also said officials were taking note of teachers’ concerns.

“We listened and we continue to work to improve current systems and processes to help better manage extreme behaviors that adversely affect the culture and climate in schools,” Parker wrote in a note to staff this week.

Celeste Holliday, a substitute teacher who covered Zwerner’s first-grade class at Richneck Elementary School on one occasion, said Zwerner had difficulty maintaining order in the class of 25 to 30 kids, but Holliday thought she was a conscientious teacher.

“She was great. She was doing the best she could,” Holliday said of Zwerner. “She mentally prepared me. She told me, ‘They’re rambunctious 6-year-olds. It’s going to be a hard day. Do the best you can.'”

Zwerner’s warning proved prescient.

Holliday said the class was rowdier than many others for which she has substituted. Holliday said that, on the day she worked at Richneck, one boy shoved another during recess and the boy scraped his knee. The injured boy had to go to the nurse’s office for treatment.

Afterward, the principal came to the classroom and told the boys to calm down because they were shouting, Holliday said. The principal filed a report about the shoving incident. Holliday said that, after the experience, she decided she would not substitute at Richneck Elementary School again.

Drew said in his online chat that detectives have wrapped up interviews with most students but are still seeking school disciplinary records and other materials related to the boy.

When the probe is complete, Drew said the findings will be sent to the Newport News commonwealth’s attorney to decide whether anyone should be charged. Legal experts say it is unlikely the boy will be charged since children under 7 are presumed unable to form the intent to carry out an illegal act under Virginia law. But Drew has said it is possible someone could be charged for failing to secure the gun used in the shooting.

Ellenson, the attorney for the boy’s family, said in an interview that the gun was secured with a trigger lock and kept on the top shelf of the mother’s bedroom closet. Ellenson said it is unclear how the boy got hold of the gun.

Newport News police declined to comment on the family’s characterization that the weapon was stored securely.

The Jan. 6 shooting occurred as school was winding down for the week. Police said the boy pulled out the gun as Zwerner was teaching and shot her.

Zwerner was rushed to the hospital with critical injuries; Drew said she is continuing to recover. Police said the boy brought the gun from home in a backpack.

The boy’s family said in their statement he is in a hospital receiving treatment and expressed sorrow for the shooting.

“We continue to pray for his teacher’s full recovery, and for her loved ones who are undoubtedly upset and concerned,” the statement read. “At the same time, we love our son and are asking that you please include him and our family in your prayers.”