Abigail Zwerner, a first-grade teacher in Newport News, Virginia, thought the Jan. 6 school day was normal until she heard rumours that one of her students had a gun. Fear gripped her as the day progressed, and school officials did nothing, she claimed.
She then fixed her gaze on a 6-year-old boy sitting several feet away, just before 2 p.m., perched at a small table where she was reading to her students. His tiny fingers were wrapped around the 9 mm handgun trigger.
“I just will never forget the look on his face that he gave me while he pointed the gun directly at me,” Zwerner, 25, said, recounting the harrowing moment at Richneck Elementary School in an interview aired Tuesday on NBC’s “TODAY” show.
A bullet ripped through her left hand, rupturing bones before it lodged in her upper chest, where it is still lodged. Despite her injuries, she sprang to gather the other children and usher them to safety quickly. Screams of terror echoed throughout the class of about 20 students.
“That was pretty shocking itself,” she said, getting shot without warning. “But I just wanted to get my babies out of there.”
She said the following events were a blur in an interview with “TODAY” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie on Monday. And, according to Zwerner, she is still coming to terms with the trauma and her recovery journey in an incident that made national headlines and exposed what other teachers and parents described as school administration failures.
Zwerner wasn’t even sure she’d make it. After leaving her classroom, she went to the school office, and her breathing became heavy, and her vision dimmed. Before an ambulance arrived, she lay on the floor as two coworkers applied pressure to stop the bleeding.
She didn’t know then that one of her lungs had collapsed. She said the bullet struck her hand first before it entered her chest most likely saved her life, because her writing took the initial impact.
“I remember I went to the office and just passed out,” she said. “I thought I had died.”
At the hospital, Zwerner’s twin sister, Hannah, and their mother, Julie, rushed to her side.
“She looked bad. Really out of it, really fragile,” Hannah recalled.
Doctors at Riverside Regional Medical Center began the first of several procedures, inserting pins to stabilize the bones in her hand. Zwerner is undergoing physical therapy and is unsure whether her hand will function normally again.
“It’s tragic how much her life has changed, and just to see her having to go through what she’s going through,” Julie Zwerner said, “to see how hard she’s trying, how difficult it can be to raise one finger of her left hand.” But she perseveres. She is an inspiration.”
After Newport News police concluded their investigation last month, the local prosecutor’s office reviewed the case to determine whether anyone should face criminal charges. Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn said he wouldn’t seek charges against the 6-year-old given that a young child wouldn’t have the competency to understand the legal system or adequately assist an attorney.
After sending the Newport News school board an intent-to-sue notice almost three weeks after the shooting, Zwerner’s lawyer said she expects to file a lawsuit in two weeks.
According to the notice, school employees warned an assistant principal three times over a few hours on Jan. 6 that the student was armed, but she did not call police or institute a lockdown.
“There were failures on multiple levels in this case, and there were adults that were in positions of authority that could have prevented this tragedy from happening and did not,” lawyer Diane Toscano said Monday.
Toscano has said the boy had behavioral issues and a pattern of troubling interactions with school staff members and other students. The notice of intent to sue said he was suspended for one day for breaking Zwerner’s cellphone and returned the next day with the 9 mm handgun he used to shoot her.
The boy’s family said in a statement that the weapon had been “secured” in the home and that they have “always been committed to responsible gun ownership and keeping firearms out of the reach of children.”
The family also stated that the boy has a severe disability and was receiving “treatment he requires” in court-ordered temporary detention at a medical facility following the shooting.
Police said the child’s mother legally purchased the gun he used, but they haven’t said how he got it or whether it was securely stored, as the family claims.
James Ellenson, a lawyer for the family, said in an email Monday that they “welcome the prosecutor’s decision” not to seek charges and that they “continue to pray for Ms. Zwerner’s complete recovery.”
Toscano declined to comment on the decision not to charge the boy, but stated, “I do believe that there are people who should be held accountable.”
Newport News Public Schools did not respond to the allegations. According to a district spokeswoman, the district cannot comment on allegations against school officials in an ongoing internal investigation or share any information in the student’s educational record due to the criminal investigation.
The district said in a statement Tuesday that the safety and well-being of students and staff members are its most important priorities.
“We will continue to do everything possible to ensure a safe and secure teaching and learning environment in all of our schools,” the statement said.
Due to the shooting, the school board installed full-time security and metal detectors at Richneck.
Meanwhile, Zwerner stated that she is taking each day as it comes. Her mother and sister are both educators, so she comes from a family of educators. After graduating from James Madison University in Virginia, she began teaching virtually during the Covid pandemic.
Her father, John, a veteran Newport News firefighter, and paramedic, died suddenly at home in 2020.
Her job as a teacher became a bright spot in her life, and the first time she walked into her Richneck classroom was life-affirming.
“It was amazing. It was the moment that you had been waiting for. Like, this is what I’ve been practicing. This is what I’ve studied,” Zwerner said. “It’s finally here.”
But, she says, nearly dying has changed her, and she’s unsure whether she’ll be able to return to the classroom. She added that even getting out of bed for physical therapy can be difficult.
“I’m not sure when the shock will wear off because of how surreal it was and the vivid memories I have of that day. I think about it every day, “Zwerner explained. “Every now and then, I have nightmares.”
For now, she is grateful for the cards and messages of hope and resilience from strangers who have learned of her story.
On her right wrist is a charm bracelet that reads “Smile.” She does so when she thinks of the young faces of her students, who she is thankful weren’t hurt.
“I love every one of them. I’m very grateful that they’re all alive, safe, and healthy,” she said. “And I just miss them dearly.”
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