A Virginia judge has ruled that a first-grade teacher who was shot by her 6-year-old student can proceed with a $40 million lawsuit against school officials for failing to prevent the shooting despite multiple warnings that the boy had brought a gun to school.
Circuit Court Judge Matthew Hoffman rejected a motion by the Newport News school board to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Abigail Zwerner, 26. The school board had argued that Zwerner was only entitled to worker’s compensation benefits for the injuries she suffered in the January shooting at Richneck Elementary School.
However, Hoffman found that “the danger of being shot by a student is not one that is peculiar or unique to the job of a first-grade teacher.” His ruling means Zwerner could be awarded significant damages beyond the 10 years of pay and lifetime medical coverage she is eligible for under the Virginia Workers Compensation Act.
“We disagree with the judge’s ruling,” said Anne Lahren, an attorney for the school board, in a statement. “The risk in this scenario is that of a teacher being injured by a student, which unfortunately is becoming more common.”
Zwerner’s attorneys hailed the decision as an important step toward justice. “No teacher expects to stare down the barrel of a gun held by a 6-year-old student,” they said.
Lawsuit Alleges Negligence By School Officials
In her lawsuit, Zwerner accused school officials of negligence, gross negligence and reckless disregard by failing to act on multiple reports that the boy had brought a gun to school on the day of the shooting.
According to the complaint, at least three school employees and several students warned administrators that the boy was armed. However, officials did not thoroughly search the boy’s backpack or contact police after an initial search did not uncover the weapon.
The lawsuit states that another student who was “visibly upset and crying” told a teacher the boy had shown him a gun on the playground. But the principal said the boy’s pockets were too small to conceal a gun and did not authorize additional searches.
Later that day, the boy pulled out the 9mm handgun in Zwerner’s first grade classroom and shot her in the chest. The bullet went through Zwerner’s hand before entering her chest, forcing her to undergo four surgeries and spend nearly two weeks hospitalized.
Zwerner resigned from her teaching position in March and her last day was June 12. She claims she continues to suffer serious physical and emotional distress from the shooting.
Mother Of Shooter Faces Charges
Deja Taylor, the mother of the 6-year-old shooter, faces up to six months in prison after pleading guilty to felony child neglect charges in August.
According to court records, Taylor told police her son had behavioral issues and took medication for “obstructive defiance disorder.” The school required Taylor to accompany the boy to class in the weeks before the shooting due to his past behavioral problems.
The shooting occurred on the first day Taylor’s son was allowed back in class unaccompanied. Days earlier, the boy had allegedly smashed Zwerner’s cellphone on the ground after grabbing it from her.
Taylor also accepted a plea deal on federal weapons charges for illegally using drugs while owning a firearm and lying about her drug use when purchasing the gun.
Police say the boy told them he stood on a dresser to take his mother’s gun from her purse because he “needed to shoot my teacher.” A search of Taylor’s home uncovered marijuana, drug paraphernalia, but no gun safe or trigger lock.
A sentencing hearing for Taylor’s child neglect charges was delayed until December 15. She faces up to six months behind bars.
Shooting Intensifies Focus on Guns in Schools
The shocking incident involving a 6-year-old shooter intensified concerns over guns finding their way into elementary schools nationwide.
While gun violence is relatively rare in primary schools compared to high schools and colleges, data shows it is increasing. According to Everytown Research, there were at least 172 cases of gunfire on school grounds in 2022 – the highest number on record.
The shooting also highlighted the need to secure firearms at home and safely store them away from children. More than 4.6 million American minors live in homes with loaded, unlocked guns, according to research.
Mental health experts said the case underscores the importance of early intervention and behavioral services for children exhibiting warning signs.
“We need more resources to identify and help struggling students, especially at the elementary level,” said child psychologist Dr. Benjamin Oosterhoff. “If a 6-year-old says he wants to shoot his teacher, that should set off alarms across the board.”
In Newport News, school officials implemented new security measures in the wake of the shooting, including random searches and metal detectors. But Abigail Zwerner’s lawsuit alleges much more could have been done to prevent the traumatic incident.
With the court allowing her case to move forward, the teacher now has the chance to hold school leaders accountable for what her lawyers called “justice delayed and denied.”