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Prosecutor explains unusual charge against former Virginia school administrator after 6-year-old shot teacher

Prosecutor explains unusual charge against former Virginia school administrator after 6-year-old shot teacher

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — A Virginia prosecutor said Thursday that he will pursue the case against a former assistant principal indicted on a felony child neglect charge at the elementary school where a 6-year-old shot a teacher last year, and suggested others could be charged as the investigation continues.

A day after a special grand jury report outlining the case against ex-administrator Ebony Parker was made public, Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn told reporters that he was “troubled” by the findings and believes the charge is warranted. He added that he had never brought a charge against a school administrator or heard of it being done as it relates to this type of case, but that “we go wherever the facts will lead us.”

“I never thought about this as precedential,” Gwynn said. “I simply think about this as us doing our jobs. And so, whether it has any precedent or not, it’s not really relevant to what we do and it has no bearing into any decision we make.”

Students return to Richneck Elementary in Newport News on Jan. 30, 2023.Billy Schuerman / TNS via Getty Images

The shooting at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News on Jan. 6, 2023, brought national attention to school safety and stunned the community when police announced the child’s actions appeared intentional.

Legal experts say it remains rare for charges to be brought against parents, administrators or other adults when a child commits gun violence at school. But some say the recent involuntary manslaughter trials of the Michigan parents of a teenage school shooter who killed four classmates — the first parents in the U.S. to be held criminally responsible for a mass shooting committed by their child — could set a legal precedent leading to similar prosecutions.

Gwynn said there is a message to be sent when charges are brought in the fallout of school shootings and that “the safety of children and staff and administrators should be taken seriously.”

“Everything you do and say sends a message. And what is the message that you want to send by your conduct,” Gwynn said of school officials, adding it should be: “‘We got to do everything we can to protect you. We know this is a dangerous situation. So we got to do everything we can to protect you because that’s what we signed up for.'”

‘Lack of response’

In Newport News, the 6-year-old student, who has not been named, used a 9 mm handgun to shoot his teacher, Abigail Zwerner, while she sat at a reading table in their first-grade classroom. She was seriously injured but survived, and managed to escort her class of about 15 students to safety, police said.

On the day of the shooting, Parker, Richneck’s assistant principal at the time, was made aware by other staff and students on four occasions that the child might be a “potentially dangerous threat,” according to the grand jury’s report.

“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, adding that it was an “avoidable situation.”

Parker, who resigned in the wake of the shooting, has been charged with eight counts of felony child abuse — each one representing the number of bullets that the boy had in the gun, Gwynn said. She appeared in Newport News Circuit Court earlier Tuesday for a hearing with her lawyer, and another hearing was set for next month ahead of a trial.

If found guilty, she faces up to five years in prison per count.

It was unclear if she has already entered a plea, and her lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment following the hearing.

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.

A photo of Abby Zwerner pinned to a coat during a vigil for Zwerner on March 20, 2023.Billy Schuerman / TNS via Getty Images

Its report provided further details about the events leading up to the shooting and during it, among them that after the boy shot Zwerner from 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.”

Gwynn said Thursday that he was disturbed by other details and allegations in the report, including that students were traumatized following the shooting and unable to transfer schools and how a friend of the 6-year-old boy tried to warn adults at the school about the gun and “feels guilty today that nobody listened to them.”

He added that an investigation is ongoing into missing documents regarding the student’s behavioral file.

The grand jury report 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.

Gwynn said his office is working with school leadership to determine what happened to the missing documents in his file, and if someone is found to have illegally removed them, “trust me when I tell you, they will be charged.”

New approach for prosecutors

The recent criminal cases against James and Jennifer Crumbley, the parents of school shooter Ethan Crumbley, in Oxford, Michigan, and now Parker, a school official in Newport News, remain rare, but indicate a new willingness among prosecutors to hold others accountable when a child commits gun violence, said Mark Chutkow, a lawyer who previously led the criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office in Detroit.

“Prosecutors are becoming more creative and more aggressive in holding adults and people in positions of trust responsible for the crimes of children,” Chutkow said. In Newport News, “as it compares to the Michigan case, the prosecutors expanded their options.”

School administrators were not charged in connection with the mass shooting at Oxford High School in 2021, although there has been outcry to hold school officials there accountable. But in the Richneck shooting, the mother of the 6-year-old boy had pleaded guilty to felony child neglect last year after prosecutors said the child obtained her gun.

Chutkow said for prosecutors to also accuse an administrator at Richneck of felony child neglect shows a duty of care that is placed upon school staff, particularly when a firearm is involved. He said the charge parallels what prosecutors in Michigan had to prove for involuntary manslaughter against the Crumbley parents.

“It can’t just be ordinary negligence, but it’s got to be really gross negligence,” Chutkow said. “Taking it one step further really criminalizes it.”

NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos said the crux of these cases suggest investigators in school shootings are looking for who missed obvious warning signs and if that could have prevented someone from being harmed.

“To me, it’s no coincidence that this indictment is coming out around the same time as the conviction of the Crumbley parents for their child’s school shootings,” Cevallos said. “There appears to be a seal that is broken, and now the waters are flowing.”

Changes after shooting

The school board of the Newport News Public Schools said in a statement Thursday that the district has since implemented several changes following the shooting and “will continue to do so in the future.” The district had installed metal detectors at all of its schools and brought in new leadership.

“Safety of students and staff remain a top priority for the School Board,” the school board said.

In the aftermath of the shooting, 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.

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 boy’s mother, Deja Taylor, was sentenced in December to two years in prison on the state charge of felony child neglect and must begin her state sentence after she finishes serving 21 months on a related federal charge.

Deja Taylor, right, arrives with attorney James Ellenson at the Newport News Sheriff’s Office on April 13, 2023.Newport News Daily Press / Billy Schuerman

Three months after the shooting, Zwerner also 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.

Zwerner resigned after filing her suit.

During a news conference Thursday, lawyers for Zwerner, 26, said she has been “cooperating in every way we can” with the criminal investigation and welcomed the grand jury’s decision to bring a charge against a school administrator who “failed to act.”

They said they were bothered by how the grand jury noted that Parker “did not look away from her computer screen” when Zwerner tried to tell her she was concerned about the boy’s “aggression” before the shooting happened that day. Others had tried to warn Parker the boy was believed to have been armed, but they said she didn’t intervene, according to the report.

“When somebody comes into your office and says that there’s a gun on campus, looking away from a computer screen should be a given,” lawyer Kevin Biniazan said. “Taking immediate action, whatever it may be, should be a given.”

Diane Toscano, another lawyer for Zwerner, said she learned some new details in the grand jury’s report, including how Parker allegedly “shut the door” to her office after the shooting despite learning what had happened and that the 6-year-old boy had attempted to shoot the gun again but it was jammed.

“That was hard to read,” she said, “to know he tried to shoot a second time.”

Owen Hayes reported from Newport News, Erik Ortiz from New York and Julia Jester from Washington.

Owen Hayes

Owen Hayes is an associate producer for the NBC News Washington bureau.

Erik Ortiz

Erik Ortiz is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital focusing on racial injustice and social inequality.

Julia Jester

Julia Jester is a producer for NBC News based in Washington, D.C.

Victoria Ebner

contributed

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