‘Shocking’ failures led to shooting of Richneck teacher by 6-year-old

AP Photo/Denise Lavoie, File
Signs stand outside Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., Jan. 25, 2023.

A 6-year-old boy who shot and wounded a teacher at Virginia’s Richneck Elementary School last year should have been unenrolled after choking a different teacher, but basic lapses by administrators allowed him back, according to a special grand jury report released Wednesday.

The breakdown was one in a long line of failures by school administrators to act on warnings about the boy before he snuck a gun inside the Newport News school and opened fire on Abigail Zwerner, a first-grade teacher, the special grand jury wrote.

The panel’s report suggested the shooting could have been prevented, but it also could have been much worse – as the young shooter had a gun full of bullets with 15 students cowering around him.

“The firearm had jammed due to his lack of strength on the first shot inhibiting him from shooting Ms. Zwerner or anyone else again,” the special grand jury wrote. “The firearm had a full magazine with seven additional bullets ready to fire.”

The 24-page special grand jury report is the most detailed public accounting to date of the shooting that generated national attention, stirred outrage by parents and led to the ouster of the school district’s superintendent. The panel found a school so poorly protected it was vulnerable to a “probable massacre” in an active shooter situation, officials who kept secrets from parents and a lack of help for the young shooter that might have provided him a lifeline.

The 11-member panel also recommended a criminal probe of a high-ranking member of the Newport News School District for allegedly obstructing the investigation into the shooting, after key pieces of evidence – the boy’s disciplinary files – went missing.

The special grand jury reserved its harshest judgments for Richneck’s former assistant principal, Ebony Parker, who it found was warned three times on the day of the shooting that the boy had a weapon but failed to do anything. It indicted her on eight charges of child abuse, possibly the first time an administrator has been charged in connection with the handling of a school shooting, experts said. Her attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

“Dr. Parker’s lack of response and initiative given the seriousness of the information she had received on Jan. 6, 2023 is shocking,” the panel wrote.

The special grand jury was empaneled by Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard E. Gwynn to examine whether any security lapses contributed to the shooting last year that left Zwerner struggling for her life.

The problems began almost from the start of the boy’s tenure at Richneck Elementary. In kindergarten, the special grand jury found he walked up behind a seated teacher and used his forearms to choke her. She had to be rescued by an assistant.

Even so, school officials did not create a behavioral plan for the boy and administrators eventually decided he was to attend a different school, the report found. But by first grade, the boy was back at Richneck despite the fact he had never finished kindergarten.

Parker told a first-grade teacher that the boy’s mother had taken him to Chicago for school, but the story was never verified, according to the report. The boy was placed in Zwerner’s class, despite the previous plan for him to go elsewhere.

The report found the boy began exhibiting troubling behaviors again.

School officials created a special education program or him and his parents were allowed to attend classes with him, but the special grand jury found the school never performed a background check on the father who had a criminal record or told other parents in the class the father was in the classroom.

It was just one of many safety lapses, the report found. The school did not have a full-time school resource officer, second grade classrooms did not have doors or permanent walls and the front door buzzer was broken for weeks, which prevented police officers from quickly entering the school after the shooting. They were forced to bang on the doors until a janitor let them into the building.

Shortly before the shooting, the boy was suspended from school after smashing Zwerner’s phone. Upon his return, the lapses and failings would reach a crescendo on the morning and afternoon of Jan. 6, 2023, when the boy brought his mother’s gun to school.

The special grand jury found Zwerner warned Parker that day that the boy was in a “violent mood” and threatened to beat up a kindergartner, but Parker did nothing. Zwerner claims it was one of several moments that Parker might have intervened to prevent the shooting.

“Dr. Parker did not respond,” the grand jury wrote. “Dr. Parker did not look away from her computer screen.”

Shortly after, a reading specialist was walking down the hallway at Richneck when two students ran up to her and told her the boy had a gun in his backpack, according to the report. The reading specialist questioned the shooter, but he denied having a gun and wouldn’t let the teacher search his backpack. The reading specialist reported what students told her to Parker, who again didn’t do anything, the report found.

Around 12:30 p.m., Zwerner was lining her students up for recess when she noticed the boy put something in his pocket. Zwerner told the reading specialist, who searched the boy’s backpack but did not find the gun.

The reading specialist spoke to Parker again, this time relaying what Zwener had witnessed, but Parker said the boy had “little pockets,” implying he couldn’t have a gun. After recess, a scared student told another first grade teacher that the boy had told him he had a gun and showed him bullets on the playground, the report found.

That teacher also notified Parker, who allegedly responded the student’s backpack had already been searched. Finally, 20 minutes before the shooting, a guidance counselor asked to search the boy for the weapon, but Parker told him to hold off because his mother would be there soon.

Around 2 p.m., the boy pulled out the gun in Zwerner’s classroom and fired at her, striking her hand and chest. “Ms. Zwerner looked down to see a pool of blood forming,” the special grand jury wrote.

The children bolted across the hallway to another classroom, where a student who had reported the boy had a gun was waiting.

“I told you,” the student said. “I tried to keep you safe. I told you.”

A receptionist in the office announced a lockdown and Parker and the school’s principal, Briana Foster Newton, went into their offices and shut their doors, according to the report. The special grand jury report concluded Foster Newton was never made aware about the warnings about the gun.

Zwerner eventually rushed into the office and collapsed. A grandmother tried to stanch her wounds before she was taken to the hospital. A boy crouched behind a copier to hide and was crying. A teacher rushed into Zwerner’s classroom and restrained the shooter until police arrived.

The special grand jury described the school’s post-shooting response as “chaos.” Parents found out about the shooting via the news and social media and rushed the scene. The school only sent notices to parents hours later after dinner.

The problems continued to pile up. The special grand jury described school officials and the Newport News School District as “frankly insensitive” to the trauma families suffered and denied most parent requests for students to be transferred to other schools.

When law enforcement began investigating the shooting, they executed a search warrant for the shooter’s disciplinary records, but couldn’t find the two files at the school, even though every other child’s file was at Richneck.

Dr. LaQuiche Parrott, the director of Elementary School Leadership for the district, eventually returned one of the files, but the special grand jury said it was missing all its disciplinary records including documentation about the choking incident in kindergarten. The other file was never located.

Parrott told the special grand jury she could not recall how she got the file, according to the report. The special grand jury found Parrott’s testimony “highly suspicious” and wrote she should be investigated for obstruction of justice. Parrott did not respond to a request for comment.

Parker is scheduled to appear in Newport News Circuit Court on Thursday morning. She resigned from Richneck after the shooting. Prosecutors have said they do not intend to charge the boy because of his age. He is now living with his grandfather.

Deja Taylor, the boy’s mother, was convicted of firearms violations and child neglect in federal and state courts after the shooting. Taylor admitted to lying about her marijuana use on her background check to purchase the gun used in the shooting and failing to keep the weapon from her son. She is currently serving time in prison.

The special grand jury began taking testimony in September. It heard from 19 witnesses, amassed hundreds of pages of documents obtained videos to compile its report. Under Virginia law, special grand juries have broad powers to investigate.

“The grand jury report reveals a systemic failure that led to the shooting of Abby Zwerner,” Zwerner’s attorneys said in a statement. “Most shocking is the apparent cover up of disciplinary records before and after the shooting. We are grateful for the work of the special grand jury and the answers they have provided this community.”