NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - A year after she was shot by her 6-year-old student in a Virginia classroom, former teacher Abby Zwerner said she still worries about the other children who saw it happen, and wonders how they’re faring.
Wounded by a bullet that struck her hand and chest and punctured a lung, Zwerner rushed the other first-graders into the hallway before she collapsed in the elementary school’s office.
"I hope that they are enjoying school, enjoying their second-grade year," Zwerner, 26, told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper. "I hope that they’re still kind to their classmates, kind to teachers. I hope that they still have happiness, and that their happiness wasn’t completely stripped away."
Zwerner gave a round of local media interviews before the Jan. 6 anniversary of the shooting at Richneck Elementary in Newport News. And while she’s endured an extremely challenging 12 months, both physically and emotionally, Zwerner recalled moments of joy with friends and family and the warmth of strangers who’ve contacted her from across the globe.
"The amount of kindness that people still have, that really resonates with me," she told ABC affiliate 13News Now. "That helps me remember that, just because something terrible happened to me that should never have happened, there’s still kindness and good left in the world."
Zwerner said she also has faith in the American court system.
She’s suing Newport News Public Schools for $40 million, alleging that school officials ignored multiple warnings the boy had a gun and was in a violent mood.
The school board has tried to block the lawsuit, arguing that Zwerner is eligible only for workers compensation under Virginia law. But a judge ruled in November that the lawsuit can proceed to trial.
The school board is in the process of appealing that ruling, which some legal experts said was surprising given Virginia’s strict workers’ compensation law. The school board also filed a claim Friday before the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission seeking full benefits on Zwerner’s behalf, including nearly 10 years net pay and lifetime medical care for her injuries.
A statement from school board attorney Anne Lahren noted that a two-year statute of limitations for seeking benefits would otherwise expire before the trial’s scheduled start date in late January 2025.
Abby Zwerner attends a hearing for a civil lawsuit she filed against the Newport News Public Schools on Oct. 27, 2023, in Newport News, Virginia. The hearing concerns whether Judge Matthew W. Hoffman should toss the case and declare it mere a workman
"She has recently given interviews expressing worry about medical expenses arising from her injuries, all of which would be covered for her lifetime by workers’ compensation benefits," the statement said. "We do not want to see these significant benefits jeopardized by letting the deadline for filing lapse. We firmly believe that the Workers’ Compensation Commission is the correct forum to determine this case, not the Circuit Court."
Meanwhile, the mother of the boy who shot Zwerner, Deja Taylor, has been sentenced to a total of nearly four years in prison for felony child neglect and federal weapons charges. Her son is now in a different school and in the care of his great-grandfather.
Taylor’s son told authorities he got his mother’s handgun by climbing onto a drawer to reach the top of a dresser, where the firearm was in his mom’s purse. Taylor initially told police she secured her gun with a trigger lock, but investigators said they never found one.
Zwerner declined to talk about Taylor or her son. But she told The Virginian-Pilot that the shooting is "always going to be there with me … and it’s always there in the back of my head."
Zwerner was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She still endures nightmares of violence. And after spending nearly two weeks in the hospital, she has had five surgeries to try to restore motion to her left hand.
Zwerner no longer works for the school district and has no plans to teach again, telling 13News Now that her career has "been taken from me, stripped from me."
She hasn’t been in touch with her former students because "it’s still been really hard to think of the last time I was with them," Zwerner said. "And then I think about their last time that they were with me."
The former teacher said she’s considering another career path but isn’t ready to share what it is. In the meantime, she’s been sustained by her family, friends and even strangers. A GoFundMe page set up by her sister has raised more than $280,000. The costs of her recovery — from ambulance, hospital and doctors’ bills to ongoing therapy appointments — continue to grow.
She said this year’s holidays were hard. But they’ve always been hard since her father passed away a few years ago.
"So, I feel like it was double hard this holiday," Zwerner told 13News Now. "But it was really nice to be able to have a holiday again."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.