Last year a 6-year-old shot a teacher in her classroom at nearby Richneck Elementary School. This has nothing to do with sailing, but it has come up for discussion frequently on the boat.

By Jim Spencer

Multiple warnings of imminent gun violence ignored by an assistant principal ended in a six-year-old shooting his first-grade teacher.

School ShootingSchool personnel left a terrified child sitting unattended in an elementary school office after the school shooting took place.

A broken front door security system locked sheriff’s deputies out as they tried to respond to the crime.

Files that documented the shooter’s years-long history of violent behavior went missing, including a form that explained how the shooter choked his teacher as a kindergartener.

The Special Grand Jury report that explains how a six-year-old came to shoot first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner at Richneck Elementary School on Jan. 6, 2023 paints a staggering picture of indifference, ineptitude, and a possible cover-up.

School ShootingThe report shows why the Newport News Public School System may never live down its mishandling of one of the most troubling sagas of school violence in U.S. history owing to the age of the perpetrator and his intentions. The grand jury found that the child pulled a gun from his pocket in a classroom with 15 other children and shot Zwerner once in the chest from less than six feet away. He tried to pull the trigger again, but his fully loaded gun jammed.

The report recommended that one school administrator, former Richneck Assistant Principal Ebony Parker, face criminal charges for child neglect. Parker, according to the report, failed to act on multiple warnings on the day of the shooting. One came from Zwerner who told Parker the child was in a violent mood.  Parker also failed to act on concerns expressed by teachers and staff that the child might have a gun. In particular, she did not authorize a search of the boy’s person to look for a weapon even after another student told a teacher that the shooter had said he had a gun and showed the student bullets.

The grand jury report also alleges that Parker ignored earlier disruptive behavior by the shooter. This included a report by the child’s kindergarten teacher that he choked her during the 2021-2022 school year.

Parker resigned from her job shortly after the shooting.

School ShootingShe may not be the only person charged in this tragedy. The grand jurors rightly asked for a continuing and more thorough investigation of possible obstruction of justice involving central administrators who cannot explain why some of the shooter’s disciplinary records were missing when law enforcement personnel executed search warrants trying to find them. One of them told investigators that she had one of the files in her car but could not remember how it got there. Meanwhile, the choking incident report was nowhere to be found anyehere in school system records. The only way the grand jury could prove its existence was because the kindergarten teacher who filed it kept a copy.

With or without criminal charges, a lot of people need to be disciplined, if not fired.

This includes administrative personnel responsible for not repairing Richneck’s front door security system that had been broken for weeks before the shooting, according to the report. The non-functioning buzzer system that alerted office staff to open the door left sheriff’s deputies responding to the shooting pounding on a locked door for roughly a minute until a custodian opened it.

Beyond the indifference and ineptitude that contributed to the shooting, one of the most disturbing parts of the grand jury report describes a “small boy” in the school office after the shooting took place. The report says the child was sitting in a chair in the office when a person rushed in and said someone had been shot. The report says the person went into Parker’s office with Parker and closed the door. The principal, Briana Foster, was in her office with two students and remained there with the door closed, according to the report. A receptionist called 911 and “lockdown” over the public address system, and the little boy began to cry, the report says.

A grandmother of a Richneck student was also in the office. The report describes her actions this way:

“After knocking on the Principal’s door and saying there was a child out in the main room and both Dr. Parker and Ms. Foster’s door [sic] remained shut, the Grandmother comforted the boy by telling him she won’t let anything happen to him and to go hide in a place where no one can find him. The boy squeezed his little limbs in the tight space between the copier and the wall and sat all alone until the Grandmother retrieved him when it was confirmed to be safe.

“In the meantime, Ms. Zwerner had walked from her classroom, down the hall and into the main office where she passed out in front of Ms. Foster’s door. Ms. Foster opened the door, saw Ms. Zwerner, and shut the door again, telling the two kids in her office to get into the bathroom. Ms. Foster then emerged from her office while the Grandmother applied pressure with a rag to Ms. Zwerner’s wound until the paramedics arrived.”

The Special Grand Jury noted that there were some contradictions in the testimonies about what happened in the main office but concluded that “this Grand Jury finds that the most credible testimony was that Dr. Parker and Ms. Foster acted in the manner described above [in the report].”

Regardless of any details that remain in dispute over what happened at Richneck Elementary School Jan. 6, 2023, here are the indisputable facts:

An extremely troubled six-year-old child, well known for his violent behavior, brought a gun to school and shot his first-grade teacher at point blank range while administrators responsible for protecting his classmates had chances to stop the shooting and failed miserably.

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