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Newport News superintendent fired in 5–1 board vote

A person wearing a suit speaks into a microphone
John C. Clark
Former Newport News Superintendent of Schools George Parker III makes remarks on the safety parameters currently in place at the city's schools during a press conference Monday Jan. 9. A Virginia police chief said a 6-year-old student fired the handgun that wounded a Virginia first-grade teacher while she was teaching class on Friday, Jan. 6 at Richneck Elementary School.

George Parker's departure comes amid claims leaders failed to act on warnings of armed student.

The Newport News School Board voted 5-1 Wednesday night to fire Superintendent George Parker III.

That comes after a first-grade student at Richneck Elementary allegedly shot their teacher earlier this month.

Teachers in the district have complained of failure by school administration to address violence and discipline in the schools, including dozens of comments at a school board meeting last week.

Earlier Wednesday, an attorney for the teacher, who was injured in the shooting, said administrators had been warned the boy was armed in advance and announced plans to sue the district on behalf of the teacher.

Diane Toscano, an attorney for 25-year-old Abby Zwerner, said school administrators were warned three different times on Jan. 6 that a 6-year-old student had a gun.

Toscano said the administrators repeatedly shrugged off the warnings and failed to address the safety threat.

“This tragedy was entirely preventable if the school administrators responsible for school safety had done their part and taken action when they had knowledge of imminent danger,” Toscano told the press Wednesday.

Toscano laid out new details over several minutes but refused to take questions at the press conference.

According to Toscano, Zwerner herself advised an administrator between 11:15 and 11:30 a.m. that the 6-year-old threatened to beat up another child. Toscano said administrators did not call security or remove the student from the classroom.

Then, Toscano said, a different teacher told the same administrator around 12:30 p.m. that she had searched the 6-year-old student’s backpack and not found the weapon. So, she believed he had put the gun in his pocket and taken it to recess.

“The administrator downplayed the report from the teacher and the possibility of a gun, saying, and I quote, ‘Well, he has little pockets,’” Toscano said.

A third teacher went to administrators shortly after 1 p.m. about another student who had come to them crying, saying the same 6-year-old had shown him the gun and threatened to shoot him if he told anyone.

Again, Toscano said the administrator did nothing.

“When a fourth employee who heard about the danger asked the administrator for permission to search the boy, he was denied. He was told to wait the situation out because the school day was almost over,” Toscano said.

Later that afternoon, the child pointed the gun at Zwerner while she was teaching her first-grade class. He allegedly fired once, hitting her in the hand and upper chest.

She was able to usher her other students out of the classroom before seeking medical attention. Nobody else was injured.

Police said when they arrived, another school employee was restraining the child on the ground in the classroom. The gun was on the floor.

Zwerner was hospitalized for more than a week, but now is recovering from her injuries at home. Toscano said Zwerner is in between surgeries and physical therapy.

Newport News Public Schools spokesperson Michelle Price said she could not comment on the allegations made by Toscano because the school district hasn't completed its own investigation.

Richneck principal Briana Foster Newton was removed from her post following the shooting, but remains employed by the district.

District officials put another former principal in charge of the school.

What about the 6-year-old?

It’s still unclear what fate the accused child in this case will face.

Police initially confirmed that he had been put on a temporary detention order and was being evaluated by child psychologists at a medical facility.

But since that initial update on Jan. 9, they’ve refused to confirm anything about the 6-year-old’s whereabouts, treatment or condition.

Experts have told WHRO News that it seems highly unlikely a child this young could be charged with a crime in a case like this.

Instead of prosecution, the child could receive ongoing mental or behavioral health services, his home situation could be evaluated and a long list of other measures could be taken, experts said.

Police have said it's critical for them to understand how the child got the gun in the first place.

The gun reportedly belonged to the child’s mother and was purchased legally. But it’s a crime in Virginia to leave a gun unsecured around children.

Last week, the family of the child who allegedly shot Zwerner released a statement that said he suffers from “an acute disability” and that the gun had been secured.

The statement didn’t explain how the 6-year-old got the gun.

Police have not announced any charges against the child, his mother or anyone else in the case.

Read the original story on WHRO's website.