A Virginia teacher who was shot by a disabled six-year-old pupil texted a loved one an hour before she was wounded to say the boy was armed and school officials were failing to act, a source has revealed.
Abbey Zwerner, 25, had just finished reading a story when the child pulled out the handgun and shot her in the chest in front of her first grade class at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News on January 6.
A source close to the investigation told NBC that Zwerner messaged a loved one saying she was ‘frustrated because she was trying to get help with this child, for this child, and then when she needed help, no one was coming.’
Zwerner’s lawyer Diane Toscano held a bombshell press conference Wednesday announcing a lawsuit against Newport News Public Schools, alleging that administrators were told three times by staff that the boy had a gun on him that day.
Another teacher had also warned that the six-year-old had left a boy sobbing after showing him the gun – and threatening to shoot him if he told anyone.
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Abbey Zwerner, 25, had just finished reading a story when the child pulled out the handgun and shot her in the chest in front of her first grade class at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News on January 6
Attendees hold their heads down for a prayer during a vigil for Zwerner in front of the Newport News Public Schools Administration Building on Monday January 9
Messages of support left by students for Abbey Zwerner at the front door of Richneck Elementary School Newport News
A third teacher informed the administration that she had searched the boy’s backpack and told them she believed the child had concealed the gun in his pocket.
An administrator is alleged to have dismissed the concerns, responding: ‘Well he has little pockets’.
A fourth teacher asked if he could search the child’s backpack but he was denied, Toscano told the press conference.
Zwerner also went to school authorities earlier that day to report the six-year-old had threatened to beat up another student.
Toscano announced that her client still has the bullet ‘dangerously’ lodged inside her body. She added that Zwerner – who was discharged from hospital last week – is communicating with her daily and gaining strength every day.
However, Toscano said ‘the road to full recovery will be long … and the psychological scars will be lasting.’
The family of the child – who has not been identified – last week put out a statement claiming the firearm had been ‘secured.’
They added that the boy ‘suffers from an acute disability’ and was usually accompanied at school by at least one of his parents.
However, the family said the week of the shooting ‘was the first week when we were not in class with him. We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives.’
Police Chief Steve Drew has repeatedly characterized the shooting as ‘intentional,’ saying the boy aimed at Zwerner and fired one round which pierced her hand and struck her in the chest.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Toscano said: ‘On that day, over the course of a few hours, three different times – three times – the 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.
‘This tragedy was entirely preventable if the school administrators responsible for school safety had done their part and taken action when they had knowledge of imminent danger.
‘But instead they failed to act and Abbey was shot.’
‘Were they not so paralyzed by apathy, they could have prevented this tragedy,’ she added.
The lawyer said the first incident of the day came between 11.15am and 11.30am, when Zwerner told a school administrator the six-year-old had threatened to beat up another student.
Toscano said the school administration failed to call security or remove the child from class.
At around 12.30pm, a different teacher went to a school administrator to tell them that the child was rumored to have brought a gun to school and that she had searched his backpack.
The teacher told the administrator she believed the boy had stashed the gun in his pocket before heading out for recess.
Zwerner’s lawyer Diane Toscano (pictured) held a bombshell press conference Wednesday announcing a lawsuit against Newport News Public Schools, alleging that administrators were told three times by staff that the boy had a gun on him that day
Toscano said: ‘On that day, over the course of a few hours, three different times – three times – the 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’
Abbey Zwerner, 25, had just finished reading a story when the child pulled out the handgun and shot her in the chest at at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News on January 6
The administrator is alleged to have downplayed the teacher’s concerns because the six-year-old had ‘little pockets.’
Shortly before 1pm, Toscano said, a third teacher reported to the administrators that another boy had come to her in tears, telling her that the child had showed him the gun during recess and threatened to shoot him if he tattled on him.
Toscano says the school administration failed to follow the safety protocols and did not report it to the police.
Concerned about the threat, a fourth member of staff asked an administrator if he could search the boy. This request was denied, Toscano said.
School chiefs allegedly dismissed his concerns, saying that school was almost finished for the day.
Just under an hour later, Zwerner was shot by the six-year-old.
Toscano concluded the press conference by stating that the incident was ‘entirely preventable’.
School district spokeswoman Michelle Price and School Board Chair Lisa Surles-Law did not immediately return calls seeking comment on Toscano’s allegations.
When asked about Zwerner’s text to her loved one prior to the shooting, Price told NBC that any claims were being ‘thoroughly investigated.’
Price said: ‘Anything that has been reported to our school leadership team in regards to concerns at Richneck from teachers and staff members is part of the investigation. It’s being thoroughly investigated.’
Police vehicles are seen parked outside Richneck Elementary School in Newport News on January 6
Crowds of concerned parents gathered outside the school following the shooting
The teacher has been hailed a hero in the local community
The shooting raised questions over security at the school and stunned Newport News, a city of about 185,000 people roughly 70 miles southeast of Richmond.
The family of the child – who has not been identified – last week put out a statement claiming the firearm used had been ‘secured’ and that one of his parents usually accompanied him in class but did not the week the shooting occurred.
The family’s statement was released by an attorney and did not elaborate further on where the 9mm handgun was kept. The family was not identified.
‘Our family has always been committed to responsible gun ownership and keeping firearms out of the reach of children,’ the statement said. ‘The firearm our son accessed was secured.’
The family also said the boy ‘suffers from an acute disability and was under a care plan at the school that included his mother or father attending school with him and accompanying him to class every day.’
The statement was the first from the family since the shooting and was released through the office of Newport News-based attorney James S. Ellenson.
Police said earlier that the six-year-old’s mother legally purchased the gun but that it was unclear how her son gained access to it.
A Virginia law prohibits leaving a loaded gun where it is accessible to a child under 14, a misdemeanor crime punishable with a maximum one-year prison sentence and $2,500 fine.
A spokesman for Riverside Regional Medical Center said last Thursday that Zwerner had been released from the hospital earlier in the week.
The statement read: ‘(Zwerner) continues her recovery as an outpatient with the support of family, friends, and health professionals. The Zwerner family respectfully asks for privacy during this time.’
In the wake of the statement from the family of the six-year-old, a former psychologist with Newport News Public Schools told WAVY that warning signs among students with ‘explosive behaviors’ were regularly ignored.
The psychologist told the station: ‘These issues had persisted, and it had escalated to a point where it had put a teacher in danger.’
She added: ‘Issues are swept under the rug because it’s easier to think that there’s no problem when there is a problem that needs to be addressed.’
Richneck Elementary was due to remain closed throughout last week with school administrators reportedly working to ensure it had a full-time security guard and metal detectors. Students may be required to have see through backpacks going forward.
At a school board meeting last Tuesday that was open to the public, the parent of one of the students who was in the classroom when the shooting occurred, Desiree Yvette, said her daughter is traumatized following the shooting.
A crowd of parents waited outside Richneck Elementary School after the shooting where the six-year-old allegedly shot his teacher on purpose after an ‘altercation’
Zwerner, pictured at her 2019 graduation, suffered life-threatening injuries
Yvette said: ‘She’s six, she’s terrified because the person who was advocating for her got hurt.’
In an interview with 13News Now, Yvette added: ‘I was scared for any of the kids to have had witnessed this, but I was more scared that my daughter was witnessing this.’
The mother referred to Zwerner as a ‘hero’ for her actions.
She continued: ‘She has always said those are her kids. It was heartbreaking and it was the most brave thing I’ve heard. She is honestly an earth angel. She’s the kindest person. She’s so supportive of her students.’
No charges have been brought against the mother, but the investigation continues, Police Chief Steve Drew said during one of two Facebook live chats he held with the community last week.
During the first chat, the chief was asked at least twice about whether the boy’s parents would be held accountable or the mother charged. Drew responded by saying he wanted to ensure detectives were able to conduct a thorough investigation.
‘I am not going to rush them,’ Drew said. His department has a great relationship with local prosecutors, he said, and he has ‘tremendous faith’ that ‘they will make the right decision based on the evidence that they have in front of them.’
Investigators have nearly finished interviewing the children who were in the classroom, Drew said, and police are working with a psychologist to talk to them about what they saw.
‘This is a unprecedented incident that we have had in our city, where a 6-year-old child obtained a firearm, brought it to school, pointed it, fired and shot his teacher in front of other students,’ the chief said. ‘I have a young teacher who suffered a gunshot wound while teaching her classroom. By the grace of God, she´s still with us today.’
The statement from the boy’s family also elaborated on the child’s relationship with his teacher, who is still recovering from the gunshot wound and has been called a hero by police and educators alike.
‘Our heart goes out to our son’s teacher and we pray for her healing in the aftermath of such an unimaginable tragedy as she selflessly served our son and the children in the school,’ the family said.
Abbey Zwerner, 25, was shot in the chest by the six-year-old after she had finished reading a story to her first graders t Richneck Elementary School on January 6
Newport News Public Schools Superintendent Dr. George Parker (pictured at the vigil on Jan 9) told parents he is considering requiring clear plastic backpacks for Richneck students
‘She has worked diligently and compassionately to support our family as we sought the best education and learning environment for our son,’ the statement continued. ‘We thank her for her courage, grace and sacrifice. We grieve alongside all of the other teachers, families and administrators for how this horrific incident has impacted them, our community, and the nation.’
The family said the child has been under hospital care since the shooting and is receiving ‘the treatment he needs.’
‘We continue to pray for his teacher´s full recovery, and for her loved ones who are undoubtedly upset and concerned,’ the family said. ‘At the same time, we love our son and are asking that you please include him and our family in your prayers.’
The shooting occurred as Zwerner was teaching her first grade class at Richneck.
Authorities said there was no warning and no struggle before the boy pointed the gun at Zwerner.
Drew, the police chief, described the shooting as ‘intentional.’ A judge will determine what´s next for the child.
The superintendent of Newport News schools revealed last week that Richneck administrators had learned the child may have had a weapon before the shooting. But a search did not find the handgun, despite staff looking through his bag.
The revelation fueled outrage among parents and particularly teachers. Many criticized school system administrators at a school board meeting for what they called a misguided emphasis on attendance and other education statistics over the safety of children and staff.