(Updates with board vote to remove superintendent, appoint interim leader)
By Tyler Clifford
Jan 25 (Reuters) – Authorities at a Virginia school were warned three times that a first grader had a gun before he shot and wounded his teacher, her lawyer said on Wednesday, while the school board voted to oust the superintendent.
Abigail Zwerner, 25, was “shot purposely” in front of other students at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News earlier this month after administrators ignored warnings the 6-year-old student posed a threat, lawyer Diane Toscano said at a press conference.
The warnings were made over three hours on the day of the shooting, according to Toscano, who said she planned to file a lawsuit against the Newport News School District on behalf of Zwerner.
“This tragedy was entirely preventable if the school administrator responsible for school safety had done their part and taken action when they had knowledge of imminent danger,” said Toscano. She did not say what damages she would seek on behalf of the teacher, who was wounded in the chest.
At a special meeting Wednesday evening, the school board voted 5-to-1 to relieve Superintendent George Parker of his duties with severance. Parker came under pressure after saying that at least one administrator was aware the boy may have had a gun on the day of the shooting.
After the vote, Chairwoman Lisa Surles-Law said the decision to terminate was made without cause as defined in Parker’s contract.
“Dr. Parker is a capable division leader who has served Newport News for nearly five years through some extremely challenging circumstances,” she said. “This decision is based on the future trajectory and needs of our school division.”
Zwerner was the first to tell a school administrator on the morning of Jan. 6 that the student threatened to beat up another child, but the boy was not removed from class, according to Toscano. The administrator was not named.
In the afternoon, a second teacher who suspected the boy had a weapon did not find a gun when she searched his book bag. She then told the same administrator that she believed the boy had put the gun in his pocket before going to recess, the lawyer said.
Toscano said another student told a third teacher that the boy showed him a gun during recess and threatened to shoot him if he told anyone. The teacher reported the account to school administrators, she said.
A fourth employee who learned of the threat asked for permission to search the boy, but was denied by the same school safety administrator, the lawyer said.
“He was told to wait the situation out because the school day was almost over. Tragically, almost an hour later, violence struck Richneck Elementary School,” Toscano said.
Police plan to present findings from an investigation to the commonwealth’s attorney in Newport News, who would make any decision regarding possible charges against the boy’s mother.
The school board on Wednesday voted 5-to-1 to appoint Michele Mitchell as interim superintendent until a permanent replacement is found. Mitchell, who is currently executive director of special education, will receive an additional 25% base pay as she assumes the role, according to the board. (Reporting by Tyler Clifford in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Leslie Adler)
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