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Shooting of Virginia teacher by 6-year-old was an ‘avoidable event,’ special grand jury report says

<i>Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot/AP via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Newport News Chief of Police Steve Drew
Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot/AP via CNN Newsource
Newport News Chief of Police Steve Drew

By Raja Razek, Joe Sutton and Artemis Moshtaghian, CNN

(CNN) — The 2023 shooting at a Virginia elementary school in which a 6-year-old student shot his teacher was an “avoidable situation,” a special grand jury said in a newly released report, citing “poor decisions” in the lead-up to the shooting.

The 11-member panel investigating the January 6, 2023, shooting at Richneck Elementary school in Newport News also found a “shocking” lack of response by the former assistant principal despite several warnings about the child, the report says.

The report, dated March 11 but publicly released Wednesday, highlights a series of security failures and “many behavioral problems” involving the child before the shooting that wounded first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner.

The school’s former assistant principal, Ebony Parker, resigned about three weeks after the shooting and was charged with eight counts of child abuse/disregard for life by a special grand jury last month, according to court records.

Each of those eight felony counts carries a maximum potential sentence of five years in prison. If convicted, Parker could face up to 40 years in prison.

Parker received four reports on the day of the shooting about the student having a firearm and “neglected to take any action upon receiving” the reports “of a potentially dangerous threat,” the special grand jury report said.

Parker and other administrators were also “responsible for making poor decisions regarding the child” prior to the day of the shooting and dismissed “his teachers concerns,” the report said.

“Despite the fact that the child … had enough documented substantial behavioral problems known by Dr. Parker to have him physically removed from the school the year prior, the child was placed in Ms. Zwerner’s first grade class for a total of 23 students enrolled.”

And despite warnings on the day of the shooting – including from “three different students over the course of two hours” – that the student had a firearm, the 6-year-old was not searched or removed from class, according to the report.

The panel also noted missing evidence in the case, including on the child’s disciplinary records, and said another school district administrator should be investigated to “determine if she should be criminally charged with obstruction of justice.”

“It is at its best a complete lack of competence as to how things were run and recorded and at its worst a cover up for the child’s past disciplinary record by the school administration,” the report said.

Emily Mapp Brannon, an attorney representing several Richneck Elementary School families, released a statement Thursday saying, “The children and families of Richneck have suffered irreparable harm. This report is thorough and appalling. This report is the first demonstration of concern for the children and the families of Richneck. These jurors concluded what the families of Richneck have known. On January 6, 2023, the safety of the children of Richneck was of no concern to the administration.”

The Newport News School Board issued a statement Thursday thanking the grand jury for its report.

“We have implemented a number of positive changes since this incident and will continue to do so in the future,” the statement said, without detailing the changes made. “Safety of students and staff remain a top priority for the school board.”

Those changes include giving the district’s elementary schools weapons-detection systems through which students and visitors pass upon entry to the buildings; assigning two full-time security officers to Richneck Elementary, which previously had only one part-time officer; and requiring all students to use district-issued clear backpacks, the district told CNN.

CNN has reached out to Ebony Parker’s attorney for comment.

The teacher, Zwerner, filed a $40 million lawsuit last year against the school board and administrators alleging they ignored warning signs and were aware of the student’s “history of random violence,” CNN previously reported.

Diane Toscano, an attorney for Zwerner, said at a Thursday news conference the findings detailed in the special grand jury report mean Newport News school leadership “will not escape accountability for this tragedy. They reminded us that justice will prevail in this case.”

Toscano said she was particularly troubled by the school downplaying disciplinary records before the shooting and hiding them afterward.

“In addition to the question of possible obstruction of justice, serious questions need to be answered by the school board and about the culture that they oversaw of being loose with disciplinary records and that put our teachers and our students in danger,” she said.

She encourages both the Virginia and the US Department of Education to do their own investigation.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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