Trial Moves Forward for Teacher Shot by 6-Year-Old Student 

13 Nov, 2023 Liz Carey

                               

Newport News, Va. (WorkersCompensation.com) – A lawsuit brought by an elementary school teacher after she was shot by one of her students can go on, a judge has ruled.  

Newport News, Virginia teacher Abby Zwerner filed a $40 million lawsuit against Newport News Public Schools and its administrators in April. The suit comes after she was shot by a 6-year-old student in her classroom in January. Zwerner’s attorneys, Diane Toscano, Jeffrey Breit and Kevin Biniazan, allege that school administrators not only ignored the student’s “history of random violence,” but that they ignored warning signs the day of the shooting.  

The judge in the suit ruled Friday, Nov. 3 that the suit could move forward, rejecting the school’s defense that Zwerner’s only recourse was through the state’s workers’ compensation laws.  

“This victory is an important steppingstone on our path towards justice for Abby,” Zwerner’s attorneys said in a statement. “We are eager to continue our pursuit of accountability and a just, fair recovery. No teacher expects to stare down the barrel of a gun held by a six-year-old student.” 

On Jan. 6, Zwerner was teaching at Richneck Elementary School when one of her students aimed a gun at her and shot her in the hands and chest.  

According to the lawsuit, the school not only knew that the student had a gun, but that he was in a “violent mood.”  

The school had placed the student on a special care plan that required a parent to accompany him throughout his school day. That week his parents were not available to accompany him,  but administrators allowed him to attend school. 

The lawsuit alleges that assistant principal Ebony Parker had ignored at least three separate warnings that day from teachers and staff that the student had a gun. Upon being told by school staff member that the student had taken the firearm from his backpack and put it into the pocket of his hoodie, Parker allegedly told staff members his “pockets were too small to hold a handgun,” and ignored staff members’ concerns, the complaint filed in Virginia Circuit Court for the City of Newport News said. 

Adminstrators also “forbade” teachers from searching the student saying that his mother would be at the school to pick the student up from the school. Within an hour of Parker’s refusal to allow anyone to search the student, the boy took the gun from his pocket and shot Zwerner as she was seated at a class reading table.  

The incident came after the student developed a history in kindergarten. The lawsuit alleges the student strangled and choked a teacher, and later pulled up a female classmate’s dress and touched her inappropriately on the school playground.  

According to the complaint, teachers at the school would bring the student’s behavior to administrators’ attention, but their concerns were dismissed.  

The school board had previously moved to have the lawsuit dismissed claiming that the only remedy for Zwerner was through workers’ compensation, and that she should expect working with children to be dangerous.  

In their response to the lawsuit, the school district said Zwerner was "clearly injured while at work, at her place of employment, by a student in the classroom.” Her claim, the district said, fell under the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation. Additionally, the school board rejected her claim that she could expect to work in an environment that posed no danger, citing numerous examples of violence against teachers in the community and across the country.  

"While in an ideal world, young children would not pose any danger to others, including their teachers, this is sadly not reality," the filing stated. 

Newport News Circuit Court Judge Matthew Hoffman disagreed with the school board, finding that Zwerner’s injuries “did not arise out of her employment” and doesn’t “fall within the exclusive provisions of workers’ compensation coverage.”  

“The danger of being shot by a student is not one that is peculiar or unique to the job of a first-grade teacher in a class,” Hoffman said. 

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    About The Author

    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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