NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) — Virginia first-grade teacher Abby Zwerner, who was shot by her 6-year-old student in January, no longer works for Newport News Public Schools (NNPS), though her attorney and the school division dispute whether she was fired or she resigned.
Nexstar’s WAVY obtained an email exchange from the school district that includes messages between Zwerner and the NNPS Human Resources Department. Two identical emails, sent March 20 and again May 22 with the subject line of “Exit Letter,” state that “NNPS has processed a separation of employment for you effective the close of business 06/12/2023.”
The one-page email from the Human Resources Department explains exiting information, per standard NNPS policy. The email outlined what items Zwerner was to turn in, where to address questions regarding leave balances, paychecks, VRS retirement plans and insurance benefits, and it invited her to complete an exit questionnaire.
WAVY spoke Tuesday with Zwerner’s attorney Jeffrey Breit, who called this a firing.
“I don’t think you can read this any other way than you’ve been fired,” Breit said. “And that’s what she thinks. She doesn’t understand it; there’s no other communication.”
According to NNPS Spokesperson Michelle Price, Zwerner notified the school system in March that she would not be returning. In part of an email exchange between Zwerner and the division’s Human Resources Department, Zwerner said, simply:
“I wish to resign. Thank you.”
Price provided this statement to WAVY:
The email that Ms. Zwerner received from the Human Resources Department is a confirmation of her separation of service from Newport News Public Schools. Every employee who is separating from the school division receives a similar communication. Ms. Zwerner notified the Human Resources Department that she was resigning from her position as a teacher for NNPS on March 13, 2023.
Ms. Zwerner was an employee of Newport News Public Schools until June 12, 2023, the last day of her contract.
But Breit said when the email arrived, Zwerner couldn’t believe it.
“To say we were shocked is an understatement; we have litigation,” Breit said. “They haven’t paid her in a couple of months. They are trying to squeeze her. She has to August 1 to leave or re-sign, (but) they fire her two months early. The only thing I can think, they were trying to put pressure on her because we filed suit. It’s outrageous, as outrageous as I’ve ever seen.”
According to Breit, Zwerner has not been paid since February. He claims they tried to make her take workers’ compensation, but when she wouldn’t take it, they just stopped paying her.
“They sent a check to her bank account,” Breit said. “Her worker comp check – two-thirds of pay – they sent it to her. We immediately sent it back. This is not workers comp.”
Speaking about the workers comp issue, Breit also said that “they tried to see if she would cash the worker comp check so they could claim, ‘Oh, look, she took workers comp. She can’t sue us now.’”
Breit said she should have at least received disability.
“Newport News has a disability program that I know some teachers have received when they have been disabled,” Breit said, “get paid while they are out. She has not received a single response to the disability letter from her doctor.”
Breit also gave an indication of what he would say in the courtroom, and said he would also ask “every first-grade teacher under oath (whether) getting shot by one of your students was part of your job description.”
“While this woman was protecting 20 other students and risking her life,” Breit said, “they decided to fire her because she wouldn’t drop her lawsuit. That is part of the damages you are entitled to a reward for, and we are going to ask you for that.”
In the email exchange between Zwerner and Newport News Public Schools that began March 13, Zwerner initially emailed the division’s Human Resources Department stating that she was having trouble accessing the intent form.
In an email from Human Resources to Zwerner 10 minutes later, it stated that “the intent deadline had passed. However, we can use this form of communication as your intent to return or resign at the end of the school year.”
Ten minutes after that, Zwerner responded with what the division says is her intent:
“I wish to resign. Thank you.”
It was a week later when the Human Resources Department sent the first of the two duplicate “Exit Letter” emails to Zwerner.
Countering the statement from Breit that Zwerner was fired by NNPS, Price outlined the email exchange between Zwerner and Human Resources, and said when Zwerner sent the email indicating that she wished to resign, “Human Resources staff processed her resignation and followed up with two communications to her via email (March 20, 2023 and May 22, 2023) confirming her separation date of June 12, 2023 (the last day of her 10-month teacher contract).”
Addressing the issue of Zwerner not being paid since February, Price said that, “immediately following the shooting incident on January 6, the Human Resources Department began processing workers’ compensation for Ms. Zwerner. Typical NNPS protocol is for the injured employee to utilize 7 days of sick leave before workers’ compensation begins. HR leadership did not process the 7 days of sick leave (an exercise of discretion based on the unusual situation). Ms. Zwerner was on admin leave with pay until workers’ compensation payments began. Like other Richneck employees, Ms. Zwerner was paid for the time that Richneck was closed for staff and students (she was not charged sick leave during this time).
“Ms. Zwerner refused workers’ compensation, so HR staff used her sick leave to continue compensation for Ms. Zwerner. When Ms. Zwerner’s sick leave was exhausted, she was placed on unpaid FMLA, in accordance with federal law and school board policy. Had Ms. Zwerner accepted workers’ compensation, she would have received 66 2/3% of her average weekly wages tax-free.”
Zwerner, 25 at the time of the shooting, was in her classroom at Richneck Elementary School the afternoon of January 6 when her student shot her. She was seriously injured.
Police confirmed the gun used by the 6-year-old belonged to his mother, Deja Taylor.
It just happens the same day as Zwerner’s last day of official employment with NNPS, Taylor was in court to face federal charges tied to this case. She pleaded guilty to both charges, unlawful user of a controlled substance in possession of a firearm and making a false statement during the purchase of a firearm.
Zwerner has filed a $40 million lawsuit against the Newport News School Board, former Superintendent Dr. Gregory Parker, former Richneck Principal Briana Foster-Newton, and former Richneck Assistant Principal Dr. Ebony Parker. Attorneys representing Parker are asking a judge to dismiss the suit. Their argument is that Zwerner was shot while doing her job, so her injuries are covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act.
Several Richneck employees have resigned from NNPS since the shooting, including Parker, but this is the first time we are hearing about Zwerner’s employment status with the school system.