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Ex-assistant principal charged with child neglect in case of boy who shot teacher

Signs stand outside Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., Jan. 25, 2023.
Denise Lavoie
Signs stand outside Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., Jan. 25, 2023.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — A former assistant principal at a Virginia elementary school has been charged with felony child neglect more than a year after a 6-year-old boy brought a gun to class and shot his first-grade teacher.

A special grand jury in Newport News found that Ebony Parker showed a reckless disregard for the lives of Richneck Elementary School students on Jan. 6, 2023, according to indictments unsealed Tuesday.

Parker and other school officials already face a $40 million negligence lawsuit from the teacher who was shot, Abby Zwerner. She accuses Parker and others of ignoring multiple warnings the boy had a gun and was in a "violent mood" the day of the shooting.

Criminal charges against school officials following a school shootings are quite rare, experts say. Parker, 39, faces eight felony counts, each of which is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The Associated Press left a message seeking comment Tuesday with Parker's attorney, Curtis Rogers.

Court documents filed Tuesday reveal little about the criminal case against Parker, listing only the counts and a description of the felony charge. It alleges that Parker "did commit a willful act or omission in the care of such students, in a manner so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life."

Newport News police have said the student who shot Zwerner retrieved his mother's handgun from atop a dresser at home and brought the weapon to school concealed in a backpack.

Zwerner's lawsuit describes a series of warnings that school employees gave administrators before the shooting. The lawsuit said those warnings began with Zwerner telling Parker that the boy "was in a violent mood," had threatened to beat up a kindergartener and stared down a security officer in the lunchroom.

The lawsuit alleges that Parker "had no response, refusing even to look up" when Zwerner expressed her concerns.

When concerns were raised that the child may have transferred the gun from his backpack to his pocket, Parker said his "pockets were too small to hold a handgun and did nothing," the lawsuit states.

A guidance counselor also asked Parker for permission to search the boy, but Parker forbade him, "and stated that John Doe's mother would be arriving soon to pick him up," the lawsuit stated.

Zwerner was sitting at a reading table in front of the class when the boy fired the gun, police said. The bullet struck Zwerner's hand and then her chest, collapsing one of her lungs. She spent nearly two weeks in the hospital and has endured multiple surgeries as well as ongoing emotional trauma, according to her lawsuit.

Parker and the lawsuit's other defendants, which include a former superintendent and the Newport News school board, have tried to block Zwerner's lawsuit.

They've argued that Zwerner's injuries fall under Virginia's workers' compensation law. Their arguments have been unsuccessful so far in blocking the litigation. A trial date for Zwerner's lawsuit is slated for January.

Prosecutors had said a year ago that they were investigating whether the "actions or omissions" of any school employees could lead to criminal charges.

Howard Gwynn, the commonwealth's attorney in Newport News, said in April 2023 that he had petitioned a special grand jury to probe if any "security failures" contributed to the shooting. Gwynn wrote that an investigation could also lead to recommendations "in the hopes that such a situation never occurs again."

It is not the first school shooting to spark a criminal investigation into school officials. For instance, a former school resource officer was acquitted of all charges last year after he was accused of hiding during the Parkland school massacre in 2018.

Chuck Vergon, a professor of educational law and policy at the University of Michigan-Flint, told The AP last year that it is rare for a teacher or school official to be charged in a school shooting because allegations of criminal negligence can be difficult to prove.

More often, he said, those impacted by school shootings seek to hold school officials liable in civil court.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]