Grandparent Saw Frantic Aftermath of Shooting of First-Grade Teacher

Lowanda Sample-Rusk arrived last Friday at Richneck Elementary School, in a quiet neighborhood of Newport News, Va., expecting to be “in and out” as she picked up her 5- and 7-year-old grandchildren early from school.

“But it didn’t happen that way,” Ms. Sample-Rusk said in an interview on Monday. “Lord have mercy.”

Classes are canceled this week at the school, as the community seeks answers to how and why a 6-year-old student may have obtained a gun and shot a first-grade teacher, an extremely rare instance of a young child being accused in a school shooting. The teacher, who has been identified as Abigail Zwerner, 25, has been recovering at a nearby hospital and is in stable condition.

The Newport News Police have scheduled a news conference for 4 p.m. Monday to discuss the case.

In a statement over the weekend, the superintendent of the Newport News Public Schools, George Parker, III, indicated that a 6-year-old “with access to a weapon” had brought it into his first-grade classroom.

Mayor Phillip Jones of Newport News told CNN on Sunday that the community was grappling with how a child may have had “the ability to bring a gun into school and harm his teacher.”

“The individuals responsible will be held accountable,” Mr. Jones told CNN. “I can promise that.”

Messages of support for teacher Abigail Zwerner were placed on the school’s front door on Monday.Credit…John C. Clark/Associated Press

As Ms. Sample-Rusk, 55, stood in Richneck Elementary’s front office on Friday chatting with the receptionist, a school employee burst in and announced that someone had been shot. “We were trying to figure out, OK, what classroom, what grade, who was it,” Mr. Sample-Rusk said. “And she explained that it was a first-grade class.”

School officials quickly got on the intercom and ordered the building into lockdown, Ms. Sample-Rusk said, and “you heard doors close left and right.” But before the office itself was locked, someone else showed up in the doorway. It was Ms. Zwerner.

“She said, ‘Call 911 — I’ve been shot,’” Ms. Sample-Rusk recalled. “And then she fainted.” Ms. Sample-Rusk and others in the office immediately ran to Ms. Zwerner and began administering first aid, trying to “find out where the gunshot wound was.”

It was in the teacher’s torso, Ms. Sample-Rusk said, emphasizing that while she was not a medic, she knew to apply pressure to a wound. “The next time that door opened,” she said, “was when the police arrived.”

At some point in those frantic few minutes, Ms. Sample-Rusk was told that the shot had been fired by a first-grader. The police would say later that the shooting was not accidental.

“What went through my head was like, ‘Well, how did he get a gun?’” Ms. Sample-Rusk asked, adding that she was even more puzzled by how the six-year-old had learned how to use one.

“I just pray that she’s recovering and that the child gets the help that he needs,” she said.

Students and police outside of Richneck Elementary School after the shooting on Friday.Credit…Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot, via Associated Press

In the wake of the shooting on Friday, John Eley III, a member of the Newport News City Council, said he had heard some of Ms. Zwerner’s colleagues describe her as a well-respected educator who “went beyond the call of duty to make sure all her children’s needs were met.”

“Everybody had nothing but great things to say about her, her leadership and her ability to be a great teacher,” said Mr. Eley, who served for six years on the Newport News School Board before becoming a City Council member.

Later, while visiting the hospital with other city leaders, Mr. Eley said he had met members of Ms. Zwerner’s family.

“All of her aunts, her mom’s sisters, they were all educators,” he said.

A series of school shootings in Newport News over a span of less than two years has exacted a heavy toll on the community, Mr. Eley said. In September 2021, two 17-year-olds were injured in a shooting at Heritage High School; two months later, a 17-year-old was killed outside Menchville High School.

“It’s just tragic we’re having to deal with this all over again,” Mr. Eley said.

Eliza Fawcett contributed reporting. Susan Beachy contributed research.

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