NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The legal team for Abby Zwerner, the teacher at Richneck Elementary School shot by a student in January, filed a $40 million lawsuit on Monday against several Newport News Public Schools officials.
Zwerner's attorneys accuse school leaders of "recklessly disregarding the safety" of everyone on school grounds for ignoring several warnings regarding the six-year-old student.
The lawyer for Richneck's former principal released a public response to the lawsuit later Monday, saying Briana Foster-Newton would "vigorously" defend herself and suggesting she may file a countersuit.
In response to this assertion, Zwerner's legal team then stated: “It sounds like the principal is now blaming Abby for getting shot. That is absurd. The unheeded warnings to the school administration were clear and the timing of when they knew the threat was on school property is spelled out in our complaint.”
The lawsuit was filed in Newport News Circuit Court against Foster-Newton, the city's school board, former Superintendent Dr. George Parker and former Assistant Principal Dr. Ebony Parker.
In the lawsuit, Zwerner's attorneys say all of the defendants knew the boy “had a history of random violence” at school and at home, including an episode the year before, when he “strangled and choked” his kindergarten teacher. He is also accused of lifting up a fellow female student's skirt and inappropriately touching her that year.
“All Defendants knew that John Doe attacked students and teachers alike, and his motivation to injure was directed toward anyone in his path, both in and out of school, and was not limited to teachers while at the school,” the lawsuit states.
School officials removed the boy from Richneck and sent him to Denbigh Early Childhood Center for the remainder of the year, but allowed him to return to Richneck for first grade in the fall of 2022, the lawsuit states.
He was placed on a modified schedule “because he was chasing students around the playground with a belt in an effort to whip them with it," and was cursing staff and teachers, it says. Under the modified schedule, one of the boy's parents was required to accompany him during the school day.
“Teachers' concerns with John Doe's behavior (were) regularly brought to the attention of Richneck Elementary School administration, and the concerns were always dismissed,” the lawsuit states. Often after he was taken to the office, “he would return to class shortly thereafter with some type of reward, such as a piece of candy," according to the lawsuit.
The boy's parents did not agree for him to be put in special education classes where he would be with other students with behavioral issues, the lawsuit states.
In the lawsuit, the attorneys said Zwerner warned then-Assistant Principal Ebony Parker the boy was in a "violent mood" the morning of the shooting.
Her attorneys went on to say another teacher noticed the boy pull something from his bookbag and hide it in his sweatshirt. When the teacher who noticed the action checked his bookbag during recess, she did not find the gun, but attorneys said she was still concerned the boy had it on him.
The attorneys wrote in the lawsuit that when multiple teachers warned Parker they believed the boy had a gun and asked for permission to search the boy, she refused and claimed his pockets were "too small."
At 1:59 p.m., Zwerner's attorneys said that's when the boy pulled the gun out of his front pocket and shot Zwerner while she she sat at her reading table in class.
Zwerner suffered permanent bodily injuries, physical pain, mental anguish, lost earnings and other damages, the lawsuit states. It seeks $40 million in compensatory damages.
"Mrs. Briana Foster-Newton will vigorously defend any charges brought against her as a part of the lawsuit filed by Ms. Zwerner and respond accordingly," Foster-Newton's lawyer said in a statement.
"In addition, we are exploring the possibility of a countersuit as it has been brought to our attention that prior to the shooting, another student in Ms. Zwerner’s class warned her in class that the six-year-old shooter had a gun and Ms. Zwerner allegedly told the student to sit down and be quiet."
"If this is true, Ms. Zwerner may have been able to avoid the injury she suffered and this will certainly impact her claimed damages," the statement continued. "This information was never reported to Mrs. Newton. Our investigation of this new information is ongoing."
The Newport News School Board released the following statement Monday, after Zwerner's lawsuit was filed:
"At this time, the Newport News School Board has not yet received the legal documents. When the School Board is served, we will work with legal counsel accordingly.
"Our thoughts and prayers remain with Abby Zwerner and her ongoing recovery. As we have shared, as a school community, we continue to recover and support one another. We have been working in partnership with our community to address safety and security, student behavior and family engagement.
"The safety and wellbeing of our staff and students is our most important priority. The School Board and the school division’s leadership team will continue to do whatever it takes to ensure a safe and secure teaching and learning environment across all our schools."
Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said in a press conference a few days after the shooting that his detectives learned the six-year-old got the gun from his mother who had legally purchased it. It's still unclear exactly how the boy got ahold of the gun, but the family's attorney, James Ellenson, said the child's parent had it locked away and out of reach of the boy.
Ellensonwould not comment on the accusations within the lawsuit.
Monday's filing comes after Zwerner's attorney, Diane Toscano, announced her intention to file suit against the school system in late January. Since then, Virginia Beach personal injury attorney, Jeffrey Breit, joined the effort to fight for Zwerner's case in court.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.