It’s no secret that gun violence in America has been on the rise in the past few years, especially in our public education system, but have we gotten to the point where our schools can’t protect us anymore? The ongoing case of Abigail Zwerner is forcing many people to reimagine our safety within our own schools and consider how much they can truly protect us.
On the morning of Jan. 6, a 25-year-old first-grade teacher named Abigail Zwerner was shot in the hand and chest in her classroom by one of her students, a six-year-old boy, at Richneck Elementary School in Virginia. Zwerner was rushed to the hospital with life-threatening injuries and was then hospitalized for two weeks following the shooting, where she underwent multiple surgeries to repair her injuries.
The news of this case shocked the nation in January and continues to do so. Zwerner resigned from her position more than six months after the shooting in early June, following a $40 million lawsuit against Virginia school officials.
While an incident like this is devastating in any situation, there are certain parameters that are set to prevent situations like this from happening, especially after recent shootings in previous years. This incident begs the question: what happens when all directions and precautions are followed, yet events like this still happen? Well, that is exactly what Zwerner is suing the Virginia school for.
It was revealed shortly after the January shooting that school officials at Richneck Elementary were warned three separate times on the day of the shooting that the boy in Zwerner’s class might be carrying a gun. According to one of Zwerner’s lawyers, two employees asked officials to search the boy’s pockets, and another student requested a search after saying the boy had shown him the gun during recess.
After these events were reported to the school administration, the school officials failed to search or even confornt the student, call the police, lock down the school, or evacuate the building. After another employee asked permission to search the student themselves, the administration advised them to wait due to the fact that the school day was almost over. It was less than an hour after this third report that Zwerner’s six-year-old student pointed the gun at her and fired a bullet straight through her hand and into her chest.
Shortly after the shooting, Zwerner filed a lawsuit against the Richneck administration and the school board where she accused them of “negligence, gross negligence, and reckless disregard in their refusal to immediately report that a student at Richneck Elementary School had illegally carried a firearm into school property.”
While this case immediately sparked outrage across the nation, not much had been reported in relation to the case in the following months until early November. Zwerner was seen in front of a judge in late October to determine if she could proceed with her $40 million lawsuit against the school district. Lawyers for the school district have repeatedly tried to block this lawsuit, stating that Zwerner should only be eligible for workers’ compensation, which would provide her with just 10 years of pay and lifetime medical care for her injuries from the shooting.
The Newport News Circuit Court judge, Matthew Hoffman, disagreed with the school district, saying Zwerner’s injuries “did not arise out of her employment,” which makes her eligible for more than workers’ compensation. He continued his ruling by saying, “The danger of being shot by a student is not one that is peculiar or unique to the job of a first-grade teacher,” effectively permitting Zwerner to continue with her $40 million lawsuit.
After this ruling from Judge Hoffman, the school district’s lawyers said in a statement that they would appeal the ruling and that they “fully anticipate its reversal by the appellate court.” While legal experts from the case stated that getting shot is not an actual risk of the job, the school district’s attorney maintained their statement. “The actual risk of employment in this scenario is that of a teacher being injured at the hands of a student which, unfortunately, is a fairly common occurrence and one that is only increasing in frequency this day and age,” she said. The trial date for Zwerner’s lawsuit is currently scheduled for January 2025.
These recent additions to the ongoing case have stirred strong feelings in educators all across the nation. What happens when the people who are supposed to protect you fail? Did the school district fail Abigail Zwerner? Has being willing to get shot in your own classroom become an expectation of a teaching job? Zwener’s lawsuit is bringing forth many unanswered questions and sparking a new conversation about just how frequent gun violence is in the American school system.