A former assistant principal at a Virginia elementary school should be held criminally liable after her “lack of response” and “poor decisions” allowed a student to intentionally shoot his first-grade teacher last year, according to a special grand jury report released Wednesday.

Ebony Parker, who resigned in the wake of the shooting at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News on Jan. 6, 2023, now faces eight counts of felony child abuse and neglect, each carrying up to five years in prison, the case’s court docket first showed Tuesday.

The 31-page grand jury report alleges that Parker failed to protect the 15 children, ages 6 and 7, in teacher Abigail Zwerner’s class. It says Zwerner was injured by one of her 6-year-old students despite multiple warnings from staff members and other students who believed the boy had a gun and posed an imminent threat on the day of the shooting.

“Dr. Parker’s lack of response and initiative given the seriousness of the information she had received on January 6, 2023 is shocking,” the report says.

Police respond to a shooting at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., in January 2023.Billy Schuerman / The Virginian-Pilot/TNS/via Getty Images file

The report provides further details about the events leading up to the shooting and during it, among them that after the boy shot Zwerner at less than 6 feet away, he tried to fire again but was thwarted.

“The child continued to stare at her, not changing his emotional facial expression as he tried to shoot again,” the report says. “The firearm had jammed due to his lack of strength on the first shot inhibiting him from shooting Ms. Zwerner or anyone else again. The firearm had a full magazine with seven additional bullets ready to fire if not for the firearm jamming.”

An arrest date for Parker was listed as Tuesday. It was not immediately clear whether she has legal representation.

The Newport News Commonwealth Attorney’s Office declined to comment Wednesday about the grand jury report and said it would hold a news conference Thursday.

According to the grand jury report, Parker was made aware on four occasions on the day of the shooting that the child might be a “potentially dangerous threat”: At noon, a Richneck reading specialist told Parker that two students told her the child had a gun in his backpack, yet it was not checked; at 12:30 p.m., the reading specialist told Parker that while she did search the backpack and did not find a weapon, Zwerner said the child put something in his pockets; a music teacher told Parker that another first-grade teacher mentioned a gun; and at 1:40 p.m., a guidance counselor told Parker the child might have a firearm or ammunition and, when he asked whether he could search him, Parker “refused and took no action.”

About 20 minutes later, the boy would go on to shoot Zwerner with a gun containing eight bullets.

Police later said Zwerner escorted her panicked class to safety after a bullet ripped through her left hand, rupturing bones, before it lodged in her upper chest.

Three months after the shooting, Zwerner filed a $40 million lawsuit against the school district alleging that administrators, including Parker, failed to heed warnings. The grand jury’s findings are similar to her complaint.

Lawyers for Zwerner, 26, said the report echoes the “systemic failure” at the school.

“Most shocking is the apparent cover up of disciplinary records before and after the shooting,” attorneys Diane Toscano, Kevin Biniazan and Jeffrey Breit said in a statement Wednesday. “We are grateful for the work of the special grand jury and the answers they have provided this community.”

The 11-member grand jury, which was impaneled in September, said it heard from 19 witnesses, reviewed several hundred documents of school records and watched police bodycam and other video to make its determination.

The grand jury said it was tasked with addressing whether “there was any decision or action taken that would have prevented” the events of that day, making recommendations for improvements and determining whether anyone at the school “should be held criminally liable in their actions or lack of actions” in their duty to provide care and safety to students.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn told NBC News that he would not seek charges against the 6-year-old boy, citing his age and inability to adequately understand the legal system, but he said he was still weighing whether he might hold any adults criminally responsible.

A year ago, Gwynn also sought a grand jury to determine charges against the boy’s mother, Deja Taylor. She was sentenced in December to two years in prison on a state charge of felony child neglect and must begin her state sentence after she finishes serving 21 months on a related federal charge.

On the morning of the shooting, Taylor believed the gun was in her purse with the trigger lock installed, left on top of her bedroom dresser, according to a probable cause statement and a search warrant affidavit. She added that the key for the lock was kept under her bedroom mattress.

“A lockbox was not found,” prosecutors said, “nor was a trigger lock or key to a trigger lock ever found.”

As part of a care plan at the school, the boy’s parents were supposed to be with him daily, but they were absent on the day of the shooting, officials said.

The child’s family has said that he has an “acute disability” and that he had received the “treatment he needs” under court-ordered temporary detention at a medical facility.

The grand jury report also notes the boy’s disciplinary issues, including in the days before the shooting, when he was “defiant during recess,” “constantly spoke back to Zwerner,” slammed her phone on the ground at reading time, causing the screen to crack, and used an expletive toward her. He was suspended for one day after that incident.

The principal at the time of the shooting, Briana Foster-Newton, is also named in the grand jury report, but it says she should not face charges.

“Her lack of knowledge does not mean she is, per say, faultless for certain decisions as Principal regarding the care of the children at Richneck previous to this incident,” the grand jury found. “But, because she was not informed of the events on January 6, 2023 specifically, and thus was not given the chance to have acted appropriately, she is not criminally liable due to her lack of knowledge for the events that transpired.”

Foster-Newman was moved from her position. A Newport News Public Schools spokeswoman declined to comment, and an attorney representing the school board, the superintendent at the time and Foster-Newman said they are “still digesting the report” and didn’t have a further statement.

Meanwhile, the boy has been under the care of his great-grandfather, Calvin Taylor, who told NBC affiliate WAVY in December that he was disappointed the child’s mother was given such prison time on the felony child neglect charge.


Leave A Reply

© 2024 Time Bulletin. All Rights Reserved.