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Zwerner’s lawyers say Newport News schools could face state, federal investigations

Abby Zwerner walks behind her lawyer and family members into the Newport News Courthouse for a hearing in November, 2023. (Photo by Laura Phillion)
Abby Zwerner walks behind her lawyer and family members into the Newport News Courthouse for a hearing in November, 2023. (Photo by Laura Phillion)

This story was updated April 11, 2024 at 4:20 p.m

Lawyers for former Newport News teacher Abby Zwerner say new information from a grand jury report indicting a former school administrator may give grounds for state and federal agencies to investigate Newport News schools.

Attorney Diane Toscano says the grand jury report was the first time she and Zwerner learned of missing disciplinary records.

“Do we suspect things had happened? Certainly, but this confirmed it,” Toscano said at a press conference the day after the report was released.

“To see the findings that disciplinary behavior was not actually being notated as it should have been prior to January 6th is alarming and then the records are missing,” Toscano said, referencing the date Zwerner was shot by the student in her Richneck Elementary classroom. “The schools have a duty, usually, to report certain things to get federal funding and state funding.” 

Zwerner was shot in the hand and chest by a 6-year-old student in January, 2023.

She filed a $40 million lawsuit against the school district last year, alleging administrators could have prevented the shooting but ignored multiple warnings which led to Zwerner's injuries. The recently unsealed grand jury report says that four explicit warnings that the six-year-old student had a gun on school grounds were ignored by former assistant principal Ebony Parker, who has been charged with eight counts of felony child neglect.

The grand jury report goes on to say Newport News’ Director of Elementary School Leadership, LaQuiche Parrott, couldn’t provide a number of disciplinary records related to the Richneck student when asked to do so during the investigation.

The file Parrott had in her possession notably didn’t include documentation of an incident in 2021 when the student choked a teacher. The teacher herself provided the jury with her own copy of the incident report.

Later, Parrott had trouble telling investigators whether she left the documents in her home or car and told them she couldn’t remember how she got the student's file in the first place.

"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."

Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn said while the grand jury’s work is done, his office is continuing to work with the school system to figure out what happened with those documents.

“We'll work with the school system to try to ferret out how this happened,” Gwynn said at a press conference the day after the grand jury report was released. “And based on the facts and the law, if we believe somebody else needs to be charged, trust me when I tell you, they will be charged.”

Aside from the missing files, Richneck adopted a ‘mini-referral’ system that gave students several warnings before getting an official note on their school record. It was meant to keep students who were having ‘minor’ behavioral issues out of serious trouble, although the grand jury notes teachers and administrators were never clear on what was a minor or serious behavioral issue under the system.

The mini referrals were submitted via a Google Form, but were supposed to be placed in their physical files. That didn’t happen, the grand jury report says.

Within a year, none of the forms could be found and the school system couldn’t collect, use or report that data, the grand jury said. Richneck no longer uses that system. “Serious questions need to be answered by the school board and the culture that they oversaw of being loose with disciplinary records and that put our teachers and our students in danger,” Toscano said. “The public needs to know: why does it seem that Richneck administration wanted to short-circuit the school system's discipline record system? What was at stake for them?”

WHRO's Ryan Murphy contributed to this report.

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

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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