Why The Virginia Teacher Shot By 6-Year-Old Student Was Told By School Board The Shooting Was A 'Hazard Of The Job' & A 'Workplace Injury'

The school district has made it clear they aren't taking responsibility for alleged negligence.

teacher being blamed for her students rage energyy via Canva / Monkey Business Images via Canva

Abigail Zwerner, a 25-year-old teacher, was shot by a 6-year-old student in her first-grade classroom at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia.

The incident occurred on January 6, 2023, when the child used his mother's gun to shoot Zwerner in the hand and chest, resulting in nearly two weeks of hospitalization and four surgeries.

Zwerner's difficult recovery continues, and she told NBC News that she sometimes "can't get up out of bed." Zwerner launched a $40 million lawsuit against the Newport News School Board. However, they are looking to dismiss it, and their reasons for doing so are pretty off-putting.


The Virginia school board told Zwerner that the shooting was a 'hazard of the job' and a 'workplace injury.'

They argue that Zwerner's injuries fall under the state's worker's compensation act, contending that she was "clearly injured while at work, at her place of employment, by a student in the classroom."

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The school board has countered Zwerner's expectation of safety from young children in the classroom, citing multiple incidents of violence against teachers nationwide and in Newport News itself. 


"While in an ideal world, young children would not pose any danger to others, including their teachers, this is sadly not reality," the filing stated.

The child who shot Zwerner will not be prosecuted, but his mother faces charges of felony neglect and reckless storage of a firearm. The school board claims that Zwerner was approved for workers' compensation, which offers up to 500 weeks of compensation and lifetime medical care without having to prove negligence.

However, Zwerner has refused to accept it and filed her lawsuit in April 2023.

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Zwerner accuses the school officials of gross negligence and alleges that they ignored multiple warnings on the day of the shooting. The lawsuit states that the boy "had a history of random violence" and mentions an episode where he "strangled and choked" his kindergarten teacher. 

The boy was transferred but allowed to return for first grade. He was also noted for chasing students with a belt and cursing at staff and teachers.

In its filing, the school board rebuffed Zwerner's claims, explaining that the boy was being evaluated for possible ADHD, and even if additional services were required, state and federal laws would have aimed to keep him with his peers.

The lawsuit also details warnings given by Zwerner and two students who reported the boy having a gun in his backpack. The assistant principal found no weapon, and Zwerner's lawsuit claims that action was not taken, despite seeing the boy place something in his pocket.


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The school board's argument has caused a considerable stir in the community. 

James Graves, the president of the Newport News Teachers Union, has termed the argument as "ridiculous," insisting that being shot is not part of what teachers signed up for. His statement on Facebook referred to the school board's action as "a slap in our faces" and rallied school staff to attend upcoming board meetings.

The board's recent filing highlights the "unfortunate reality" that teaching in America carries risks and even likens the incident to an attack with "sharp scissors" rather than a gun, arguing that either would fall under worker's compensation.

In the end, the Zwerner case appears to be about much more than one tragic incident. It opens a window into how many employers try to limit the amount of benefits paid to employees, regardless of the situation. 


“Generally, employers will prefer to pay benefits under workers' compensation where their exposure is limited to medical benefits and lost time from work. The employers are immune from most lawsuits under liability if the employer agrees that the injury occurred in the course and scope of employment,” said Derek James, Esq., the workers' compensation attorney at the Overchuck Law Firm in Orlando, Florida.

“In these situations, there is no recovery for pain and suffering, emotional trauma, or the impact on their families," he continues. "The limitations of workers' compensation will likely mean both she and her family will be left without the financial support needed to fully recover from this tragedy.”

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Ethan Cotler is a writer and frequent contributor to YourTango living in Boston. His writing covers entertainment, news, and human interest stories.