Abigail Zwerner was a first-grade teacher in Newport News, Virginia, on January 6. The day seemed normal until she heard that one of her students had a gun. She said that fear took over her as the day went on and school officials did nothing.
Then, just before 2 p.m., as she read to her students from a small table, she looked at a 6-year-old boy sitting a few feet away. He had his tiny fingers on the trigger of a 9 mm handgun.
“I will never forget the look on his face as he pointed the gun right at me,” Zwerner, who is 25, said in an interview that aired Tuesday on NBC’s “TODAY” show. He was talking about the scary moment at Richneck Elementary School.
A bullet went through her left hand, breaking bones, and then stuck in her upper chest, where it is still there. Even though she was badly hurt, she acted quickly to get the other kids together and get them to safety. About 20 students in the class screamed out in fear.
She said that being shot without warning was pretty shocking on its own. “But all I wanted to do was get my kids out of there.”
She spoke out for the first time Monday with “TODAY” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie. She said that what happened next was a blur. And, Zwerner said, she’s still dealing with the trauma and her road to recovery from an event that made national news and brought to light what other teachers and parents said were failures on the part of school administrators.
Zwerner wasn’t sure if she would even make it. She ran out of her classroom and went to the school office. As she walked there, her breathing got harder and her eyesight got worse. Before an ambulance came, two of her coworkers pressed on the wound to stop the bleeding while she lay on the floor.
At the time, she didn’t know that one of her lungs had gone flat. She said that the fact that the bullet hit her hand first and then went into her chest probably saved her life, since the first hit was on her hand.
She said, “I remember going to the office and passing out.” “I was sure I was dead.”
Hannah, Zwerner’s twin sister, and Julie, their mother, rushed to her side at the hospital.
“She looked bad. Really confused and fragile, “Hannah thought back.
Doctors at Riverside Regional Medical Center started the first of what would be several operations on her hand by putting in pins to hold the bones together. Zwerner said that she is getting physical therapy and that she doesn’t know if her hand will work as well as it did before.
“Julie Zwerner said, “It’s sad how much her life has changed and to see how hard she’s trying and how hard it can be to just lift one finger on her left hand. But she doesn’t give up. She gives me hope.”
After the Newport News police finished their investigation last month, the case is now being looked at by the local prosecutor’s office to see if anyone should be charged with a crime. Howard Gwynn, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Newport News, said he wouldn’t press charges against the 6-year-old because he didn’t think a child that young could understand the legal system or help an attorney well.
A lawyer for Zwerner said that she plans to sue in two weeks. She sent a notice of intent to sue to the Newport News school board almost three weeks after the shooting. The notice says that school staff told an assistant principal three times over the course of a few hours on January 6 that a student was armed, but she didn’t call the police or put the school on lockdown.
“There were failures on many levels in this case, and there were adults in positions of power who could have stopped this tragedy from happening but didn’t,” lawyer Diane Toscano said Monday.
Toscano has said that the boy had problems with his behavior and a pattern of causing trouble with school staff and other students. The notice of intent to sue said that he was suspended for one day for breaking Zwerner’s phone and came back the next day with the 9 mm handgun he used to shoot her.
In a statement, the boy’s family said that the gun was “secured” at home and that they have “always been committed to responsible gun ownership and keeping firearms out of the hands of children.”
The boy’s family also said that he has a severe disability and that, after the shooting, he was getting the “treatment he needs” in a medical facility as part of a court order.
Police said that the child’s mother legally bought the gun he used, but they haven’t said how he got it or if it was safe as the family said it was.
In an email sent Monday, the family’s lawyer, James Ellenson, said they “welcome” the prosecutor’s decision not to press charges and will “continue to pray for Ms. Zwerner’s full recovery.”
Toscano wouldn’t say why the boy wasn’t charged, but he did say, “I think there are people who need to be held accountable.”
Newport News Public Schools didn’t say anything about the claims. A spokeswoman for the district said that because there is a criminal investigation going on, they couldn’t say anything about the allegations against school officials that are part of an ongoing internal investigation. They also couldn’t say anything about the student’s educational record.
In a statement released Tuesday, the district said that the safety and health of students and staff are its top priorities.
“We will keep doing whatever it takes to make sure all of our schools are safe places to teach and learn,” the statement said.
After the shooting, the school board gave Richneck full-time security and put in metal detectors.
Zwerner, on the other hand, said that she is just taking one day at a time. Her mother and sister are both teachers, and so is the rest of her family. She got her degree from James Madison University in Virginia and started working as a teacher during the Covid pandemic.
John, her father, was a firefighter and paramedic in Newport News for many years. He died unexpectedly at home in 2020.
Her job as a teacher became a bright spot in her life, and the first time she walked into her classroom at Richneck was a life-affirming moment.
“It was amazing. It was the time you had been looking forward to. Like, I’ve been practicing this. I’ve learned about this, “Zwerner said. “It’s here at last.”
She said that coming close to dying had changed her, and she doesn’t know if she will ever go back to school. She also said that it can be hard to get out of bed for physical therapy.
“I don’t know if the shock will ever go away because it was so strange and because I remember that day so clearly. Every day I think about it, “Zwerner said. “I sometimes have bad dreams.”
She is thankful for the cards and notes of hope and strength that strangers who have heard her story have sent her.
On the charm bracelet on her right wrist, it says “Smile.” She does this when she thinks about the young faces of her students, for whom she is grateful that no harm came to them.
“I love each and every one of them. I’m very grateful that they’re all alive and they’re safe and they’re healthy,” she said. “And I miss them so much.”