Newport News School Was Warned 3 Times That 6-Year-Old Had a Gun, Lawyer Says

Under pressure, the school board voted to end the superintendent’s contract. Other administrators have also left the elementary school.

A crowd is gathered outside of a red brick building. Police officers are present.
Students and police gathered outside of Richneck Elementary School after a shooting in Newport News, Va., earlier this month.Credit...Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot, via Associated Press

Paul Bibeau and

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — In the hours before a 6-year-old boy shot his first-grade teacher in Virginia this month, school leaders were warned three times that the boy might have a gun, a lawyer for the teacher said on Wednesday, including requests from employees to search the boy’s pockets and a report from another child who said that the boy had shown him the gun at recess.

In the fallout of the revelations and already facing mounting pressure from parents and educators, the school board in Newport News, Va., voted on Wednesday night to terminate the contract of the superintendent, George Parker III.

“We’re going to have to become a much more student-disciplined and safety-oriented board and division, and that is potentially going to require a lot of new direction,” said Douglas C. Brown, a board member who had been a supporter of Dr. Parker.

The teacher’s lawyer, Diane Toscano, had announced earlier on Wednesday plans to file a lawsuit against the school district, laying out a series of escalating warnings on the day of the shooting, when a 6-year-old boy took his mother’s gun from home, brought it to Richneck Elementary School and fired at his teacher, Abigail Zwerner.

The shooting has raised alarms about the rising risk of gun violence in schools in the United States — now possible even at the hands of a 6-year-old — and led to visceral demands for accountability from parents and educators in Newport News, where administrators at the elementary school have also left.

Earlier in the day, Ms. Toscano, the lawyer, laid out a timeline of events that raised new and troubling questions about the school’s response on the day of the shooting.

As early as about 12:30 p.m. — an hour and a half before the shooting — a teacher had reported to school administration that she had searched the boy’s backpack, believing he may have a gun, Ms. Toscano said. No gun was found, but the teacher reported that she believed the boy had put the gun in his pocket before going outside for recess. Instead of conducting a search, Ms. Toscano said, an administrator dismissed the threat, saying that the 6-year-old “has little pockets.”

Around 1 p.m., another teacher reported that a student had come to the teacher crying, saying that the 6-year-old boy had shown him the gun at recess and threatened to shoot the student if the student told anyone, Ms. Toscano said.

“What did administrators do?” Ms. Toscano said at the news conference. “Did administrators call the police? No. Did administrators lock down the school? No. Did administrators evacuate the building? No. Did they confront the student? No.”

A third employee who heard about the situation asked an administrator for permission to search the boy, Ms. Toscano said, but was advised to wait because the school day was almost over. But around 2 p.m., the police said, the boy pointed the gun at Ms. Zwerner and fired in the middle of a lesson, sending the class of first graders scrambling.

A spokeswoman for Newport News Public Schools declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.

Ms. Zwerner, 25, was shot in the chest, and a bullet remains lodged in her body, according to her lawyer, who said that her client was beginning a long journey of physical and psychological recovery.

“Three weeks ago, Abby was a cheery young woman with a big heart and loved educating young people — she had a very bright future and a career she loved,” Ms. Toscano said. “Today, she is between surgeries and physical therapy appointments, with a career in question. How could anyone find the courage to confidently face a class of students again?”

The case — which sits at the nexus of guns, mental health and public education in America — has brought out raw emotions in Newport News, a school district that serves about 26,600 students in southeastern Virginia.

At a packed school board meeting last week, parents and employees unleashed their concerns — over disruptive student behavior and the need for stricter discipline in schools; a culture that they said failed to listen to educators and families; a lack of resources for students struggling with behavioral challenges; and perhaps most of all, a daily fear about whether children will be safe at school.

Nationwide, schools have faced an uptick in student behavioral problems and mental health challenges among children during the pandemic.

The number of shootings on school grounds has also been on the rise. In Newport News, there were back-to-back shootings at high schools in 2021, including the killing of a 17-year-old who was shot in a high school parking lot after a basketball game.

And now, a shooting involving a 6-year-old.

“This is a uniquely American tragedy,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, an advocacy group to end gun violence, who said while children in other nations struggle with mental health and behavior, millions of children in the United States live in homes with unsecured firearms.

“The onus is always on adult gun owners to prevent children from accessing their firearms,” she said. “But because we live in a country where 4.6 million kids live in homes with unsecured guns, there have to be several layers of protection, and that does include schools.”

Many questions remain, including how, exactly, the child obtained the gun and whether a parent may be charged in the case.

The gun was legally purchased by the boy’s mother, the police said. A lawyer for the family, James Ellenson, has said that the gun was stored in a top shelf of the mother’s bedroom closet, and that the gun had a trigger lock. Virginia law prohibits leaving a loaded gun where it is accessible to children under 14, a crime that is punishable as a misdemeanor.

“On behalf of the family of the child, we continue to pray for Ms. Zwerner and wish her a complete and full recovery,” Mr. Ellenson said in a statement on Wednesday. “Our hearts go out to all involved.”

The case also brings to the forefront tensions over how schools can serve students with serious behavioral and emotional needs, while also supporting teachers and educating all students.

The family of the 6-year-old has said that he has an “acute disability” and that his mother or father had previously been attending school with him each day. The week of the shooting — just after the holiday break — was the first time that a parent had not accompanied him, the family said.

The student had previously threatened to light a teacher on fire and, in one incident, threw furniture and other items in class, leaving other students frightened, according to The Washington Post. On the day of the shooting, Ms. Zwerner reported to the school that the boy had threatened to beat up another child, her lawyer said.

James J. Fedderman, the president of the Virginia Education Association, said that the boy’s behavior — and the urgent requests for intervention from school employees — needed to be taken seriously. “That’s a cry for help on two accounts — a cry for help on the side of the student, a cry for help on the side of the educator,” he said.

It is unclear who at the school may have had knowledge of the warnings.

The school’s principal is no longer at Richneck Elementary, where a new administrator is leading the school’s reopening, a school district spokeswoman said. An assistant principal at the school was also reported to have resigned.

During the meeting on Wednesday, several school board members appeared pained over the vote to terminate Dr. Parker’s contract, which they said reflected a need to move in a new direction to meet the challenges of running a school system in 2023. The termination, in a 5-1 vote, was without cause and effective as of Feb. 1.

“Getting rid of someone is not going to fix this particular problem,” said Gary B. Hunter, who was the only board member to vote against termination. The problem, he said, was bigger than the Newport News school system, or even the city. Guns, he said, were the “elephant in the room.”

Terri L. Best, the vice chair of the board, voted for the termination of the contract, but said that she had grown concerned about the tenor of the conversation, including attacks on the 6-year-old, who is being treated at a hospital.

“In the middle of this storm is a 6-year-old little boy,” Dr. Best said. “When did we as a society give up on 6-year-old children?”