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Teacher shot by 6-year-old texted a dire warning to a loved one before she was wounded, source says

NBC News 1/26/2023 Erik Ortiz and Antonio Planas

The Virginia teacher who was shot by her 6-year-old student texted a loved one before she was wounded that the boy was armed and that school officials were failing to act, according to a source close to the situation.

The source said Tuesday that Abigail Zwerner sent the text about an hour before she was shot on Jan. 6, saying that the student said he had a gun in his backpack and that administrators at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News weren't helping.

The text "showed her frustration," said the source, who disclosed details of only the single text message to NBC News and not the messages that came before or after it. "She was frustrated because she was trying to get help with this child, for this child, and then when she needed help, no one was coming."

Abigail Zwerner (Abby Zwerner via Facebook) © Provided by NBC News Abigail Zwerner (Abby Zwerner via Facebook)

Asked about Zwerner’s text message and previous safety concerns from teachers and staff members, Newport News Public Schools spokesperson Michelle Price said: “Anything that has been reported to our school leadership team in regards to concerns at Richneck from teachers and staff members is part of the investigation. It’s being thoroughly investigated.”

Zwerner's attorney Diane Toscano said at a news conference Wednesday morning that three teachers went to the school administration about the boy's behavior on Jan. 6 and that he was believed to have had a gun on campus.

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Zwerner first went to a school administrator between 11:15 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. and said the student had threatened to beat up a classmate, Toscano said. A second teacher went to a school administrator at 12:30 p.m. and said the teacher had taken it upon herself to search the boy's backpack.

"The administrator downplayed the report from the teacher and the possibility of a gun," Toscano said.

A third teacher told an administrator shortly before 1 p.m. that the boy showed a student the gun at recess and "threatened to shoot him if he told anybody," Toscano said.

A fourth employee asked an administrator for permission to search the boy and was denied, Toscano said.

The administrator told the employee to "wait the situation out because the school day was almost over," Toscano said.

Toscano said that the "administration could not be bothered" and that the tragedy would have been "entirely preventable" if the administration "had taken action when they had knowledge of imminent danger," adding, "But instead, they failed to act, and Abby was shot."

Toscano said she plans to sue on Zwerner's behalf.

A district spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment about Toscano’s allegations.

Before the news conference, the law firm representing the Zwerner family said it could not confirm the text, and it did not respond to requests for comment from the family.

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Toscano called Zwerner the "best of us," a dedicated teacher who endured the unthinkable: "being shot purposely by a 6-year-old student in front of her first-grade class while teaching."

Zwerner still has a bullet lodged dangerously in her body, Toscano said.

"Today she is in between surgeries and physical therapy appointments with a career in question," Toscano said, adding that Zwerner is at home and gaining strength.

"The road to full recovery will be long, and as her physical condition improves, the psychological wounds cut deeply and remain fresh," Toscano said.

The school system's superintendent, George Parker III, said at a virtual town hall this month that the boy had come to school late and that his book bag was inspected when he arrived at the office to sign in, said parents who watched the meeting.

"At least one administrator was notified of a possible weapon," Parker said in a video reviewed by NBC News.

Parker was ousted from his job Wednesday night by a 5-1 vote at a school board meeting. His separation is effective Feb. 1, and he will be replaced by an interim superintendent.

A Newport News police spokeswoman said authorities also determined that "a school employee was notified of a possible firearm at Richneck Elementary before the shooting occurred," adding, "The Newport News Police Department was not notified of this information prior to the incident."

Further details weren't made available about who conducted the search, why the gun wasn’t found and whether the child's clothing was examined.

Zwerner, 25, was hailed as a hero by police, who said that after she was intentionally shot and seriously wounded in a hand and her chest, she still managed to safely escort about 20 students out of her first grade class at Richneck. She was released from the hospital last week.

"I believe she did save lives, because I don’t know what else might have happened if those kids would have stayed in that room," Police Chief Steve Drew said at a news conference this month.

No charges have been announced.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that administrators at the school had downplayed earlier warnings about the student despite repeated requests for help. School employees told Parker that Zwerner had asked for help with the student "several times" throughout the school year, according to messages obtained by the Post and not independently verified by NBC News. The messages don't indicate whom Zwerner sought help from.

Another message from a teacher obtained by the Post details disturbing behavior by the student before the shooting. The dates of the alleged behavior are unclear.

The principal and the vice principal of Richneck didn't respond to requests for comment from the Post about the teacher’s account. Price, the school district spokeswoman, told the Post that she couldn't "share any information in a child’s educational record" and cited the police investigation and the internal inquiry by the school.

Drew has said that the child’s mother bought the 9 mm Taurus firearm used in the shooting legally and that the boy took the gun from his home. Whether it was properly secured is a key element in the investigation, he has said.

The family of the boy who shot Zwerner said in a statement last week that the gun was "secured" when he took it from their home but didn't go into further detail.

Our family has always been committed to responsible gun ownership and keeping firearms out of the reach of children. The firearm our son accessed was secured,” said the statement, released by James Ellenson, the family’s attorney.

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The statement also said the boy “suffers from an acute disability and was under a care plan at the school that included his mother or father attending school with him and accompanying him to class every day.”

“Additionally, our son has benefitted from an extensive community of care that also includes his grandparents working alongside us and other caregivers to ensure his needs and accommodations are met. The week of the shooting was the first week when we were not in class with him. We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives.”

Since the shooting, the statement added, the boy has been in a hospital receiving the “treatment he needs.”

Ellenson didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening about Zwerner's text message before the shooting.

Richneck has been closed since the shooting. It is set to reopen Monday and will be outfitted with a metal detector, school officials have said.

The district has secured funding for 90 state-of-the-art metal detectors that will be placed at all district schools, officials said.

The school district has had three instances of gun violence in 17 months.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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