Home Assistant principal faces felony child neglect charges related to 2023 Virginia school shooting
Public Safety, Schools, Virginia

Assistant principal faces felony child neglect charges related to 2023 Virginia school shooting

Crystal Graham
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The former assistant principal at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News has been charged with eight counts of felony child neglect.

Richneck is the Virginia elementary school where a student in first grade shot his teacher, Abigal Zwerner, on Jan. 6, 2023. Zwerner, a James Madison University graduate, was shot in her left hand and her chest resulting in a collapsed lung. Zwerner survived the shooting.

Dr. Ebony Parker has been charged with one count for each of the eight bullets that endangered the students in the classroom and at recess.

A special grand jury investigated the shooting and concluded its investigation releasing a public report today noting security and administrative failures by Newport News Public Schools calling the shooting both “tragic and avoidable.”

Report: Behavioral issues in kindergarten, first grade

The report dated March 11 says the child exhibited behavioral problems in kindergarten. The report said the child had punched a school counselor, had kicked and spit on a teacher’s assistant and choked another teacher.

School resource officers were frequently involved in assisting teachers with the child’s behavior prior to this incident, according to the report.

No Functional Behavioral Assessment or Behavior Intervention Plan was initiated.

Despite the behavioral issues, the child was placed in Zwerner’s first grade class. The child continued to exhibit behavioral problems including choking another student and using profanity toward his teachers.

Zwerner and the child’s mother started the Student Success Team process, or SST, in a meeting on Sept. 20, 2022. The parties met two more times that year, according to the report.

While the SST process was under way, no Functional Behavioral Assessment, Behavioral Intervention Plan or Individual Education Program was implemented.

The child was also not considered for an alternative school or an Emotionally Disturbed, or ED, classroom.

In 2023, the child allegedly remained defiant. The child called his teacher a “bitch,” according to the report.

The charges against Parker were brought in part due to the fact that Parker allegedly ignored Zwerner when she reported the child was in a “violent mood” on Jan. 6, 2023, the day of the shooting. Parker allegedly did not respond, did not look away from her computer screen and did not acknowledge Zwerner’s presence in her office.

Two students later reported the child had a gun in his backpack. While the child was questioned, his backpack was not searched at that time. Later, the backpack was searched, but no gun was found.

Zwerner reported that she observed the child put something in his jacket pocket and had not taken his hands out of his pockets since. Parker took no further action and later responded simply that the child’s backpack had already been searched.

The principal was not informed of these events as she was in and out of meetings all day.

Despite a school policy that allowed searching students or their property in cases like this, Parker allegedly said to hold off, according to the report.

Later that day, the child pointed a firearm directly at his teacher at less than six feet away and pulled the trigger.

After the shooting was reported to the office, Parker went into her office and closed the door until police arrived, according to the report.

Report: Dr. Ebony Parker lack of response ‘shocking’

According to the report, Parker’s lack of response was “shocking.”

“Over the course of approximately two hours, Dr. Parker acted in complete disregard for the safety of all the children in Ms. Zwerner’s class, all the children the child played with at recess, and all the children who could have been shot in the school. This SGJ (special grand jury) finds that Dr. Parker meets the threshold of probable cause to indict Dr. Parker for child neglect …”

Child neglect is defined by Virginia Code 18.2-371(B), and it carries a potential sentence of up to five years in prison for each count.

Report: Recommendations for change

The report also makes specific recommendations for changes designed to protect students.

“In releasing the special grand jury’s report, we acknowledge the harm inflicted on all the children in Ms. Zwerner’s classroom that day,” said Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn in a news release. “We also acknowledge the special grand jury’s recommendations for substantial changes to protect students going forward and note that the school district, now led by Superintendent Dr. Michelle Mitchell, has already started implementing additional safety measures.”

The special grand jury

The special grand jury consisted of 11 citizens of Newport News which began work on Sept. 11, 2023, to investigate the shooting.

The special grand jury subpoenaed records and heard testimony from 19 witnesses, including some families whose children witnessed the shooting, school faculty and staff members, district administrators and law enforcement. They also reviewed evidence including surveillance video, body camera footage and records subpoenaed from school administration.

The child’s files were not found at the school, and when partially located later, all the child’s disciplinary records had been removed.

The culmination of their work included:

  • charging former Assistant Principal Ebony Parker with eight counts of felony child neglect
  • issuing a public report of their findings and recommendations
  • recommending further investigation into the failures to maintain and provide school records to law enforcement

Consistent with the recommendation from the report, this Commonwealth’s Attorney said he will continue investigating whether individuals who worked for the school system obstructed justice.

The full report from the special grand jury is available online.

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Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.