A resilient Abby Zwerner is opening up about the trauma and struggles she has endured in the year since her then-6-year-old student intentionally shot her inside her Richneck Elementary School classroom in Virginia.
“This past year has definitely changed me,” said Zwerner during a conversation at her attorney's office this week ahead of the one-year anniversary of the shooting. “I was diagnosed with PTSD. [My] anxiety has raised. [My] depression has raised, and that really takes a toll on me emotionally.”
Zwerner, 26, was sitting at the reading table in her classroom on Jan. 6, 2023, when one of her first-grade students walked up to her, aimed a gun at her and pulled the trigger. The bullet barreled through Zwerner’s hand, pierced her chest, and caused her lung to collapse.
Zwerner spent weeks in the hospital and underwent several surgeries. She said she thought she was going to die.
In response to a question from Scripps News Norfolk about whether she sill had bullets in her chest, Zwerner said, “[There are] some in my hand and in my upper left chest.”
Being shot is not something Zwerner ever thought would happen, especially by a student.
“It’s surreal," she said. "It’s not normal.”
Zwerner has been praised for her heroic actions moments after the shooting when she managed to get the rest of her students to safety before collapsing from her injuries. However, she's still haunted by those moments.
The $40 million lawsuit
“It’s hard talking about that day still, and it’s been a year,” said Diane Toscano, Zwerner’s attorney. “This is not something that just goes away.”
The Toscano Law Group is representing Zwerner in a $40 million lawsuit against Newport News Public Schools over claims of negligence by school administrators.
According to Zwerner’s lawsuit, the school’s former assistant principal ignored several warnings that the shooter — who the lawsuit says had violently attacked students at the school and tried to choke a teacher — had a weapon the day of the shooting.
“It’s just kind of a slap in the face,” said Zwerner, echoing claims in the lawsuit that teachers’ concerns at the school were routinely ignored.
Zwerner, who resigned from her teaching position weeks after the shooting, is refusing workers’ compensation from Newport News Public Schools, arguing her injuries were not a part of her anticipated hazards as a teacher.
In court filings, attorneys for the school board disagreed, writing “in an ideal world, young children would not pose any danger to others, including their teachers, this is sadly not reality.”
“I was hurt [by that comment],” said Zwerner. “It made no sense. It makes no sense.”
A Newport News judge ruled last year that Zwerner’s lawsuit can move forward. A trial date is scheduled for January 2025.
Deja Taylor, the mother of the boy who shot Zwerner, is currently serving time in prison for her role in the shooting.
She is serving 21 months on federal charges for lying about her marijuana use when purchasing the gun her son used in the shooting.
She will also serve another two years in prison for felony child neglect.
When asked whether she felt like that was justice, Zwerner said, “I trust the court system, that’s what I’ll say. I trust the court system.”
Zwerner is no longer teaching. She said she is now working part time in a field unrelated to education, and has no plans to resume her career as a teacher.
"I don’t want to go back,” she said.
Despite not wanting to go back to teaching, Zwerner said she still thinks about her students.
“I hope they know at the least that I miss them, never stopped missing them," she said.
Zwerner added that she thinks about all of those in the community who have supported her over the last year.
“It's meant a lot,” she said. “It means a lot to know that I have people by my side, to know that I have people who believe in me.”
She continued, “There’s still kindness in the world.”
This story was originally published by Jessica Larché at Scripps News Norfolk.
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