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Before Teacher Was Shot, Assistant Principal Was Warned First Grader Had a Gun

The shooting of an elementary teacher by a 6-year-old student in Newport News, Va., last year was preceded by a “shocking” series of lapses by the school’s assistant principal at the time, according to a report by a special grand jury that was released on Wednesday.

Despite having been told that same day that the student was “in a violent mood,” and having received several reports that he was carrying a firearm, the assistant principal turned down a school counselor’s request for permission to search the student, the grand jury said in its report.

Less than a half-hour later, the student’s teacher, Abigail Zwerner,, was in the classroom with him and 15 other first graders when he pulled out 9-millimeter Taurus handgun and shot her from less than six feet away just before 2 p.m.

The bullet passed through her hand and struck her chest. The gun, which was loaded with seven more rounds, jammed after the first shot. The boy later said that he had found it at home, in his mother’s purse.

While her students sheltered in a neighboring classroom, Ms. Zwerner stumbled down the hallway and passed out in front of the door to the principal’s office. She survived.

“I told you — I tried to keep you safe,” said one of the shooter’s friends, who had told one of Ms. Zwerner’s colleagues at Richneck Elementary School about the gun, according to the report.

The grand jury report was released a day after the assistant principal, Ebony Parker, was charged with child neglect in connection with the shooting. The 31-page document offers a detailed account of a cascade of failures that day and for more than a year before that culminated in a teacher’s being gravely wounded by one of her own students. A lawyer for Ms. Parker did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The charges against Ms. Parker, and the grand jury report detailing her conduct, also come as prosecutors around the country have become more aggressive in seeking to hold adults accountable for the violence carried out by the children in their care. This week, Jennifer and James Crumbley were sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison on manslaughter charges after their son murdered four of his fellow students at a Michigan high school with a 9-millimeter handgun that his parents, two juries found, had failed to secure.

The Richneck shooter’s mother, Deja Taylor, was sentenced last year to 45 months in prison on gun-related and felony child neglect charges. Prosecutors asserted that she had fired the gun a few weeks earlier, during a dispute with the boy’s father. Ms. Taylor “abdicated most, if not all” of her responsibilities as a parent, said a state court judge at one of her sentencing hearings.

The special grand jury, impaneled at the request of the Newport News commonwealth’s attorney, Howard E. Gwynn, was tasked with determining whether any actions could have prevented the shooting and whether anyone in the school system should face criminal charges in connection with the shooting.

The report is sharply critical of Ms. Parker, who resigned after the shooting. But the report also details a host of systemic failures in the handling of the student’s severe behavioral challenges, and it asserts that there may have been an attempt to cover up some of those earlier failures.

The prior year, when the child was in kindergarten, his teacher insisted to administrators that the student be sent to a different school after he choked her. The child left Richneck Elementary but never completed kindergarten.

When he returned, the following year, Richneck Elementary was, according to the grand jury, deficient in a number of safety measures. The school lacked a full-time security officer, and it had no record of having conducted state-mandated lockdown drills. The buzzer at the front door had been “broken for weeks” before the shooting, which left two of the first sheriff’s deputies who responded to pound on the door for “almost a full minute” before a custodian saw them and let them in.

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