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Teacher shot by 6-year-old student files $40 million lawsuit against school administrators for lack of action leading up to shooting

Police look on as students return to Richneck Elementary in Newport News, Va., on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023.  The elementary school where a 6-year-old boy shot his teacher reopened Monday with stepped-up security and a new administrator, as nervous parents and students expressed optimism about a return to the classroom. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Billy Schuerman AP
Police look on as students return to Richneck Elementary in Newport News, Va., on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. The elementary school where a 6-year-old boy shot his teacher reopened Monday with stepped-up security and a new administrator, as nervous parents and students expressed optimism about a return to the classroom. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

 (CNN) -- The first-grade teacher shot by a 6-year-old student in her Newport News, Virginia, classroom earlier this year filed a lawsuit against school administrators and the school board Monday alleging they were aware of the student's "history of random violence" and did not act proactively amid concerns over a firearm in the boy's possession the day of the shooting, according to the lawsuit obtained by CNN.

In the lawsuit, which seeks $40 million in compensatory damages, an attorney for teacher Abigail Zwerner, 25, alleges school staff and administrators at Richneck Elementary School were aware that the child was violent at home and his parents refused to place him in special education classrooms.

The suit also alleges the school's assistant principal ignored concerns and warning signs flagged by several teachers and staff members, including that the 6-year-old may have had a firearm in his possession in the hours leading up to the January 6 shooting, which left Zwerner hospitalized after a bullet went through her hand and into her chest.

Assistant Principal Ebony Parker, a defendant in the lawsuit, ignored "at least three separate warnings from teachers and staff that students had seen the firearm" and that the student had "removed an object that was likely a firearm from his backpack before it was searched," the complaint filed in Virginia Circuit Court for the City of Newport News states.

Upon being told by a school staff member that the student had taken the firearm from his backpack and put it into the pocket of his hoodie sweatshirt, Parker responded saying his "pockets were too small to hold a handgun" and went on to ignore staff members' concerns, according to the lawsuit.

A guidance counselor and administrator at the elementary school said Parker also "forbade" teachers from searching the 6-year-old for a firearm, saying his "mother would be arriving soon to pick him up," the complaint says.

CNN was unable to reach Parker for comment Monday morning.

The suit alleges that within an hour of Parker's "specific refusal" to allow anyone to search the student for a gun, the boy pulled the firearm out of his pocket, aimed it at Zwerner and shot her as she was seated at her reading table in the classroom.

Teacher who was wounded had warned boy was in 'violent mood'

On the day of the shooting, Zwerner informed Parker that the student was in a "violent mood," the complaint alleges.

During the first half of the school year, the 6-year-old was required to be accompanied by a parent during the school day "because of his violent tendencies." But that day, school administrators "allowed him to remain unaccompanied without a one-on-one companion during the school day," the complaint says.

"We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives," the boy's family said in a statement in January.

"Our heart goes out to our son's teacher and we pray for her healing in the aftermath of such an unimaginable tragedy as she selflessly served our son and the children in the school," the statement said.

James Ellenson, an attorney for the boy's family, on Monday said the allegations in the lawsuit against the child and the family "should be taken with a large grain of salt."

"We of course continue to pray for Ms. Zwerner's complete recovery," Ellenson said. "In that there is still the potential for criminal charges, there is no further comment."

The boy will not be criminally charged, Newport News Commonwealth's Attorney Howard Gwynn told CNN affiliate WTKR last month.

The lawsuit alleges that during the 2021-2022 school year, while in kindergarten, the 6-year-old strangled and choked a teacher; and that same year, he pulled up a female classmate's dress and touched her inappropriately on the school playground.

The complaint goes on to say that all defendants knew the child was removed from the elementary school and sent to Denbigh Early Childhood Center during the 2021-2022 school year "for demonstrating violent behavior."

Richneck Elementary teachers would regularly bring the student's behavior to the attention of school administration but their "concerns were always dismissed," according to the lawsuit.

In the complaint, Zwerner's attorney alleges that when the child was taken to the school administration offices to address his behavior, often "he would return to the classroom shortly thereafter with some type of reward, such as a piece of candy."

The lawsuit alleges that other students who were sent to Parker's office for disciplinary action "would return to the classroom bragging about candy they had received." As a result, "Parker's administrative style was to permit students to engage in dangerous and disruptive conduct and impose no consequence for breaking the rules," according to the lawsuit.

It is this behavior that attorneys for Zwerner say placed everyone at Richneck Elementary School and the community at risk.

In addition to the $40 million, attorneys for Zwerner are asking for interest and other damages in the lawsuit from the City of Newport News School Board and the school district superintendent, as well as Richneck Elementary School's principal and assistant principal at the time of the shooting.

The fallout from the shooting was swift, with Parker resigning two weeks later and the principal, Briana Foster Newton, being reassigned to another school. The incident, which drew harsh criticism from parents, also led the school board to vote out Superintendent George Parker III.

A statement from the school board says it has been partnering with the community to address safety and security, but said it couldn't yet comment on the lawsuit.

"At this time, the Newport News School Board has not yet received the legal documents. When the School Board is served, we will work with legal counsel accordingly," board officials said in the statement. "Our thoughts and prayers remain with Abby Zwerner and her ongoing recovery. As we have shared, as a school community, we continue to recover and support one another. ... (The board) and the school division's leadership team will continue to do whatever it takes to ensure a safe and secure teaching and learning environment across all our schools."

CNN reached out to the private attorney for Brianna Foster Newton, and City of Newport News Monday morning, but did not yet receive a response.

In her first interview since the shooting, Zwerner told NBC she can't forget the look on the child's face as he aimed the gun at her.

"I remember him pointing the gun at me, I remember the look on his face," Zwerner said. "I remember the gun going off."

Asked about her recovery, Zwerner said, "I've been doing OK. It's been challenging."

"Some days are not-so-good days where I can't get up out of bed," she told NBC. "Some days are better than others where I'm able to get out of bed and make it to my appointments. But from going through what I've gone through, I try to stay positive."

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