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Newport News grand jury report says former Richneck assistant principal ignored concerns on the day student shot teacher

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The Newport News Special Grand Jury found a number of security risks and issues with former Richneck Elementary Assistant Principal Ebony Parker's responses leading up to a first-grade student shooting his teacher last year. (Photo by Laura Philion)

This story was updated April 10, 2024 at 5:09 p.m.

This story contains profanity. Please read with discretion.

When teacher Abby Zwerner tried to tell former Richneck Elementary assistant principal Ebony Parker a first-grade student was being violent, Parker “did not respond. Dr. Parker did not look away from her computer screen. Dr. Parker did not acknowledge Ms. Zwerner's presence.”

Hours later, according to a grand jury report released Wednesday, the child shot Zwerner through her hand and into her chest in her classroom.

A Newport News special grand jury indicted Parker on eight child neglect charges related to the January 2023 shooting. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

According to online court information, the indictments were issued on March 11, but weren’t made public until April 9.

“In releasing the Special Grand Jury’s report, we acknowledge the harm inflicted on all the children in Ms. Zwerner’s classroom that day,” Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn said in a press release. 

The 11-member jury heard from 19 witnesses, reviewed hundreds of school records and watched police body camera and other video footage to write the report.

“A classroom of 15 vulnerable six and seven-year-old children witnessed the shooting firsthand. Several hundred elementary-aged children and teachers throughout the school felt fear and panic during the event. Parents of those children suffered through terror as they stood in the parking lot waiting for hours to find out what happened; wondering if their child was alive.,” the report reads.

“The decisions of certain adult administrators and faculty are what led to this tragic and avoidable event.”

"The child was now at recess ... with a firearm tucked into his jacket"

The student who ultimately shot Zwerner had a history of violence and was defiant ahead of the shooting — facts known to Parker before the incident.

In 2021, the student choked his teacher — not Zwerner — but was allowed to return to class. The teacher ultimately had to give Parker an ultimatum that the student be removed from her classroom or she would leave.The child was removed and sent to a different school.

When the child entered first-grade in fall 2022, a reading specialist, Parker, Zwerner and the child's mother, Deja Taylor, created a specialized plan to help the child catch up on reading and assist with continuing behavioral issues. 

The child attended school for about three hours a day with extensive one-on-one time with the reading specialist. The school district also allowed the child's parents to occasionally sit in the classroom with him without first running a background check on the adults and didn't alert the other students' parents.

In December 2022, the child's teachers and parents decided when he returned from the holiday break, he could try staying at school longer without a parent present.

On Jan. 3, when the new plan was implemented, the child became "defiant," the grand jury report says, and threw Zwerner's phone on the ground.

Zwerner took the student to the other first-grade classroom and while he gathered his belongings, told her, "I'm never coming back to your room again, you bitch."

He was suspended for one day.

When the student returned on Jan. 6, Zwerner and other staff noticed he was still aggressive. Zwerner went to Parker to tell her the child appeared to be in a violent mood.

Parker ignored Zwerner and instead told reading specialist Amy Kovac to tell Zwerner that she could call the student's parents to pick him up early. As Kovac returned to the hallway, two students approached to tell her the student told them he had a gun. 

Kovac went to the child, who was back in Zwerner's classroom, and asked if he had a gun. He said no. Kovac asked if she could look in his backpack; he said no. Kovac stayed with the child for 45 minutes but could not search his backpack.

Once she left the classroom, Kovac reported the incident to Parker. At the same time, Zwerner observed the child put something in his jacket pockets and didn't see him take his hands back out of his pockets. While the child was at recess, Kovac looked in the child's backpack and didn't find a gun. 

"The child was now at recess, with 30-plus other small children running around the playground, with a firearm tucked into his jacket," the grand jury report reads.

"F--k you. I just shot my teacher."

Eventually, a school counselor was notified of the situation.

Around 1:40 p.m., the counselor asked Parker if staff could search the child. School administrators are allowed to search students and their property, but Parker said no, the child's mom would be there to pick him up soon.

At 1:58 p.m., "the child, for the first time since before recess, removed his hand from his pocket holding a firearm. He pointed it directly at Ms. Zwemer and, at less than six feet away, pulled the trigger and shot Ms. Zwerner."

The report says the 6-year-old tried to fire again, but the gun jammed. The other 15 first-graders fled the classroom.

When word of the shooting reached the main office, Parker shut herself in her office until police arrived. A student's grandmother, the school's receptionist and a child remained outside despite the grandmother knocking on Parker's door to get them to a safer location.

The student squeezed between the wall and the copier. The grandmother stayed in the main office, rendering first aid to Zwerner who made her way there and collapsed in front of Principal Briana Foster-Newton's closed office door.

Near the classrooms, Kovac heard the shot and went to Zwerner's room where the child told her, "Fuck you. I shot my teacher." Kovac pulled the child away from the gun, which was on the ground, and held him until police arrived. Before police removed him, the child punched Kovac in the face.

When the child was interviewed by police with his parents, he said he got the loaded gun from his mother's purse, where he told school staff in 2021 he also found marijuana.

Other issues

The grand jury report also documents the challenges that emerged after the day of the shooting, like how difficult it was for families to move their students to different schools.

"In almost all cases the school refused a transfer causing a great deal of financial cost and heartache on the parents," the report says. 

The grand jury recommends if the student is still suffering from the shooting, with confirmation of that by a licensed mental health practitioner, that the school system make exceptions to its transfer policy to let them go to a different school.

But the jury  also suggests there may be other issues in the school system that could lead to more charges for more people.

"There should be a continuing investigation into the missing files and documents to determine if Dr. Parrott and/or other parties should be charged with obstruction of justice," the report writes, referring to La Quiche Parrott, the Director of Elementary School Leadership in Newport News. 

Parrott was asked to provide a number of disciplinary records related to the student at Richneck, but was unable to. Notably, Parrott couldn't provide documentation of the time in 2021 when the student choked a teacher. The teacher herself provided the jury with her own copy of an incident report.

"The testimony of Dr. Parrott leads to far more questions than answers as to why a student's private and confidential file would be in her car or home," the grand jury wrote. "Her inability to recall any of the events surrounding the file suggest something much more devious at play."

Beyond the child's behavioral issues, the school had unaddressed "security risks," the grand jury report said.

Richneck shared a School Resource Officer with another school and although staff were instructed to call non-emergency police for an officer, there wasn't a number posted anywhere. 

Richneck's front entry system was also broken. Normally, visitors were buzzed in after ringing a bell. Visitors instead had to bang on the door or wait until someone passed by to let them in. The door wasn't fixed as of Jan. 6, 2023, which "proved to be an issue for the police responding" to Zwerner's shooting, the grand jury wrote.

When deputies responded to the shooting, they tried banging on an outside door and considered shooting the glass out before a janitor walked by and let them in.

The report highlights changes the school system has already made - like installing metal detectors and hiring full-time resource officers- and things that could still be done, like putting up permanent walls and hiring behavioral health specialists.

Newport News Public Schools is a member of the Hampton Roads Educational Telecommunications Association, which holds WHRO’s broadcast license.

Mechelle is News Director at WHRO. She helped launch the newsroom as a reporter in 2020. She's worked in newspapers and nonprofit news in her career. Mechelle lives in Virginia Beach, where she grew up.

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