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Former Assistant Principal Found Criminally Liable in Richneck Elementary Shooting

Former Assistant Principal Found Criminally Liable in Richneck Elementary Shooting


Former Richneck Elementary School assistant principal Ebony Parker was charged with eight counts of felony child abuse and neglect in the wake of a 2023 shooting. This is a particularly significant finding as the administration is rarely held liable for incidents of this magnitude, despite teachers’ desperate pleas for help. 

If you aren’t familiar with the shooting of Abby Zwerner at Richneck Elementary in 2023, this article will summarize the most important details of what led up to the shooting, the day of the shooting, and the aftermath. 

In early April, a special grand jury released their report outlining the case against ex-administrator Ebony Parker and the school in general. Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn said 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. “I never thought about this as precedential,” Gwynn said. “I simply think about this as us doing our jobs.”

The 31-page report is shocking and disturbing. The school failed its teachers and students in dozens of ways and tried to cover up a lot of those failures soon after the shooting. Unfortunately, how this school was managed is similar to the day to day operations of many schools around America. Here is a summary of the most important parts of the Grand Jury’s report: 

The Special Grand Jury

On September 11, 2023, 11 members of a special grand jury were assembled to “investigate and report on any conditions that involve or tend to promote any criminal activity” in relation to the September 6th, 2023, school shooting. They heard from 19 witnesses, reviewed several hundred school documents, and watched police body cam footage. 

The Child’s Behavioral History

On January 6, 2023, a 1st-grade student at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, shot his teacher, Abigail Zwerner, in the chest. Over the course of his previous year at the school, he had many serious behavioral problems, including hitting, punching, and choking school staff. Little to no action was ever taken after these behavioral incidents.

In kindergarten the year before, the student choked his teacher from behind as she sat with a group of students, and the aide had to remove him. When the teacher brought an incident form to Dr. Parker, the assistant principal, and Dr. Foster, the principal, all Dr. Parker said was, “Prioritize.” No “functional behavior assessment” or “behavior intervention plan” was initiated. 

Modifications Made for the Student

Even though the student did not complete kindergarten, was below reading level, and “had enough behavioral incidents to have him physically removed from the school the prior year,” he was still enrolled in Ms. Zwerner’s class. Ms. Zwerner and another 1st-grade teacher noted that there were no kindergarten records for the student, and no further paperwork was provided when requested. The child showed behavioral problems right away, such as being physically aggressive, using profanity toward teachers, and choking another student. 

Due to the child’s behavior, both the principal (Dr. Foster) and the assistant principal (Dr. Parker) agreed to a number of adjustments, such as reducing his school hours to 9:20 AM to 11 AM after lunch. The principal also implemented a “highly unusual step”: the child’s mother or father would sit in class with him. Despite the fact that the father had a criminal record and the mother had a known habitual drug use, neither parent received a background check despite being in class with 23 other kindergarten students each day. The parents of the other students weren’t informed of this either. 

The child received no additional services because no behavioral assessment, behavior intervention plan, or individualized education plan was created, as is the usual protocol in public schools. 

Child’s Hours Extended

A few months later, in December 2022, it was decided that the child’s behavior had improved, so they extended his school hours from 11 AM to 2:30 PM, and he no longer required a parent to sit with him in class. The next school day, the student was defiant and refused to participate in any classroom activities. He also took Ms. Zwerner’s phone, held it up high, and slammed it onto the ground, cracking the screen. 

There was only one walkie-talkie for the two 1st-grade classes to share, so Ms. Zwerner walked the student to the other classroom to request assistance. Soon after, the child told his teacher, “I’m never coming back to your room again, you b*tch.” For this, he was suspended for one day.

The Day of the Shooting

The child returned from his one-day suspension on January 6, 2023. He was aggressive right away, threatening to beat up a kindergartener. Ms. Zwerner went to Dr. Parker’s office and told her the child was in a “violent mood.” Dr. Parker did not look away from her computer screen, respond, or even acknowledge that Ms. Zwerner was in the room. 

Ms. Kovac, a reading specialist, was stopped in the hallway by two 1st-grade students who said the student had a gun in his backpack. Ms. Kovac entered Ms. Zwerner’s classroom and asked the student if he had a gun. He said no. She asked if she could look in his backpack, and he said no again. Ms. Kovac stayed with him but did not check his backpack. 

Ms. Kovac told Dr. Parker what the two students told her, and she said the student wouldn’t let her check his backpack. She also mentioned that he was more calm than usual. All Dr. Parker said was, “I know.” She did not inquire further about anything related to the student and “did not appear to show concern.”

As Ms. Zwerner was lining the students up for recess, she saw the child put on an “oversized, zip-up jacket with a hood.” He rummaged through his backpack and put both his hands in his pockets. Ms. Kovac then searched the child’s backpack and didn’t find anything. Ms. Kovac reported to Dr. Parker that Ms. Zwerner had observed the child put something in his jacket pocket and he would not take his hands out of his pockets. Dr. Parker said, “He has little pockets.” Ms. Kovac explained that he had a large coat on, but again, Dr. Parker took no action. Dr. Foster, the principal, was never informed of the day’s events. 

The child was now at recess with a firearm in his jacket pocket. He went behind a rock wall with another student where teachers could not see them and showed the other child the gun. After recess, Ms. West (the other 1st-grade teacher) saw a student visibly scared and shaking. When she questioned him, he reluctantly shared that the other child showed him a gun and bullets. Ms. West told a substitute receptionist what the child said, and he told Dr. Parker. Her response was that his backpack had been searched. 

Ms. West had Mr. Rawles, a counselor, came and spoke with the child who saw the gun, and he told the counselor about it. He also said he was scared because the student threatened him if he told anyone about it. Now, Mr. Rawles, the counselor, reported to Dr. Parker that the student had a gun and bullets. This was the third person and fourth time this had been reported to her that day. He asked if they could search the child’s person. 

It is important to note that per the school’s written policy, “School administrators may search students and students’ property when there is reasonable suspicion to do so.” But Dr. Parker said no, hold off. His mom would pick him up soon. 

The child was not searched or taken from class. The police or Student Resource Officer were not called. Ms. Zwerner was left alone with a class of 1st-graders, one of whom had a loaded firearm. Three different students and four different staff members had reported this. 

The Shooting

At 1:58 PM, Ms. Zwerner was sitting with a group of students at the reading table. The child approached her and lifted a firearm to her chest. From less than six feet away, he shot Ms. Zwerner in the chest. A pool of blood began to form on her chest as the student “continued to stare at her, not changing his emotional facial expression as he tried to shoot again.” This is the part that I find the most disturbing. The child may have had an idea in his head about what shooting someone would be like from watching violent movies and playing video games. Still, when he actually pulled the trigger and saw a pool of blood forming on his teacher’s chest, he had no expression and decided to keep shooting. Thankfully, the firearm jammed because it had a “full magazine with seven additional bullets ready to fire.” 

The Direct Aftermath

All the children ran across the hall into Ms. West’s class, and she went into a full lockdown with 45 students in her room. The child who tried to warn the staff about the gun said, “I told you. I tried to keep you safe. I told you.” 

Meanwhile, Dr. Parker was outside of her office door in the main office when someone ran in and announced that someone had been shot. Dr. Parker’s reaction was to run into her office and close the door until police arrived. She did not call for a lockdown, try to communicate with any teachers, or even call 911. A receptionist decided to call 911 and announced a lockdown over the PA system. 

A young child and a grandmother were also in the main office. The grandmother knocked on the doors of Dr. Parker and Dr. Foster, the principal, and explained that there was a small child with her, but their doors remained shut. The grandmother told the boy to hide between the copier and the wall. Ms. Zwerner entered the main office and passed out in front of the principal’s door. “Dr. Foster opened the door, saw Ms. Zwerner, and shut the door again.” The grandmother applied pressure to Ms. Zwerner’s wound with a rag until the paramedics arrived. 

“Newport police were prompt, efficient, and admirable.” Since the front door to the school had a broken intercom system, they couldn’t buzz to be let in. A custodian who was wandering by let them in. At this time, Ms. Kovac entered Ms. Zwerner’s classroom, and the child said to her, “F*ck you. I shot my teacher.” The gun was on the ground, so the teacher wrapped her arms around the child until the police arrived. 

When law enforcement entered Ms. Zwerner’s classroom, the child punched Ms. Kovac in the face before being removed by the police. The child and his parents were interviewed, and he said he got the gun from his mother’s purse. 

Total Chaos and Lack of Information

Parents began to arrive at the school to pick up their children around 2 P.M. But the school had not contacted them. All of the interviewed parents said they either never heard from the school or received a message later that night. Most parents found out through the local news. There was no reunification system when parents came to the school, and it was chaos for hours until every child was accounted for. 

Major Security Issues

The school was closed for 30 days while they tried to fix major security issues. Since the front door had no working buzzer system, people would have to wait for a passerby to let them in. There was no way of checking people in or identifying them. The school had conducted no lockdown drills the entire school year. Several classrooms had no doors, and teachers had to share walkie-talkies, their only means of communicating with administration. After thirty days, there were metal detectors, security at the front door, and mandatory clear backpacks. 

Several parents requested a school transfer; the only ones who were granted a transfer were those who had used a lawyer to threaten the school. 

Missing Files 

On January 23rd, 2023, law enforcement executed two search warrants to obtain digital and physical school records. The digital records for the child only showed 3 of the dozens of incidents where the child had attacked students and staff. The incident where the student choked his teacher in kindergarten was also not there. 

The two physical files for the student, which had been in the main office and Ms. Zwerner’s classroom, were not found. “Every other student’s file was in both locations. The child’s file was the only one that was in neither location.” 

Dr. LaQuiche Parrott, the Director of Elementary School Leadership in Newport News, was questioned about the missing files. She produced one file for the child, which she said “was in her home or her car.” The file had no disciplinary records for the student. The choking incident was only confirmed through Ms. White’s testimony and her own behavioral referral, which she kept a record of. The grand jury found Dr. Parrott’s testimony “highly suspicious and potentially obstruction of justice.”

It also emerged that many of the behavioral incidents involving other students were kept from the parents. One parent testified that her child was choked twice by the student in question but never received any information from the school. 

Criminal Liability

Assistant Principal Dr. Parker made a lot of mistakes. She refused to get the child additional behavioral resources and would not consider an alternative form of education that would have been better suited for him. She constantly dismissed the serious concerns of teachers and allowed his parents to sit in class every day without a basic background check. 

But what makes her criminally liable for her lack of actions is pursuant to Va. Code 18.2-371.1 (B), the charge of child neglect. According to the grand jury, “Neglect under this section requires a person responsible for the care of a child under the age 18, by willful act or omission in the care of such child, was so gross, wanton and culpable to show a reckless disregard for human life.” Dr. Foster, the principal, is not being held criminally liable due to her “lack of knowledge for the events that transpired.” 

Dr. Parker knew of the child’s violent history and actively made decisions that led to the events of January 6, 2023. She neglected to take action to prevent something like this despite four reports of a dangerous threat. The grand jury finds Dr. Parker “meets the threshold of probable cause to indict Dr. Parker for child neglect.”

Now read a piece written by a colleague of Zwerner.

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Jane Morris

Jane Morris is the pen name of an ex-teacher who would really like to tell you more about herself but is worried awful administrators will come after her for spilling their dirty little secrets. Jane has taught English for over 15 years in a major American city. She received her B.A. in English and Secondary Education from a well-known university and her M.A. in Writing and Literature from an even fancier (and more expensive) university. As a professional queen of commiseration turned published author, Jane’s foremost passion in life is to make people laugh through the tears.

She has written several highly acclaimed books unpacking the reality of teaching and life inside the school system. You can view her full library of works here.