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Grand jury indicts the mother of a 6-year-old boy who shot his Virginia teacher

The Jan. 6 shooting of first grade teacher Abigail Zwerner in Newport News stunned the community when police announced the child's actions were intentional. 

The mother of a 6-year-old boy who seriously wounded his teacher with a gun in January will face charges in the shooting, a local prosecutor in Virginia said Monday.

A grand jury indicted Deja Taylor on charges of felony child neglect and a misdemeanor count of recklessly leaving a loaded firearm so as to endanger a child, Newport News Commonwealth's Attorney Howard Gwynn said. Gwynn said last month that he wouldn't seek charges against the student.

"Every criminal case is unique in its facts, and these facts support these charges, but our investigation into the shooting continues," Gwynn said in a statement Monday.

His office has also petitioned Newport News Circuit Court to impanel a special grand jury to continue an investigation into potential security lapses that may have led to the shooting.

"If the Special Grand Jury determines that additional persons are criminally responsible under the law, it can return additional indictments," Gwynn said.

James Ellenson, a lawyer for Taylor, said he was made aware of the indictments a grand jury returned Monday.

"My client will be turning herself in later this week," Ellenson said in a statement. "More details will follow."

State statutes say felony child neglect, which maintains there was "reckless disregard for human life," carries a sentence of up to five years in prison, while the misdemeanor charge of recklessly leaving a loaded firearm carries a sentence of up to one year in prison.

A lawyer for Abigail Zwerner, the wounded teacher, said Monday that charges against the student's mother are welcome but that more people need to be held accountable.

Virginia elementary school teacher Abigail Zwerner poses for a portrait at an undisclosed location in Virginia on March 20, 2023.
Virginia elementary school teacher Abigail Zwerner in Virginia on March 20. Carlos Bernate for NBC News

"There were failures in accountability at multiple levels that led to Abby being shot and almost killed. Today's announcement addresses but one of those failures," lawyer Diane Toscano said, adding: "Our lawsuit makes clear that we believe the school division violated state law, and we are pursuing this in civil court. We will not allow school leaders to escape accountability for their role in this tragedy."

A week ago, Zwerner filed a $40 million lawsuit alleging administrators at Richneck Elementary School shrugged off multiple warnings from staff members and students who believed the boy had a gun and posed an imminent threat on Jan. 6, the day of the shooting.

The student shot Zwerner with a 9 mm handgun as she sat at a reading table in their first-grade classroom, officials said.

Newport News police praised Zwerner for managing to escort her class of about 20 students to safety even after she was seriously wounded in her left hand and her chest. Police said the shooting was intentional.

The boy's family said in a previous statement that the weapon was "secured" in the home and that they have "always been committed to responsible gun ownership and keeping firearms out of the reach of children."

The family also said the boy has an acute disability and was receiving the "treatment he needs" under court-ordered temporary detention at a medical facility.

Police said his mother legally purchased the gun he used, but they haven't said how he obtained it or whether it was safely secured, as the family has claimed.

Virginia, unlike some other states, has no law that specifies how to secure guns in a home, said Allison Anderman, the senior counsel and director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

It does have a misdemeanor law to protect children 14 and younger from access to firearms, she said. 

The Virginia code says "you can't leave a loaded firearm unsecured in a matter that would endanger the life and limb of a child under the age of 14," Anderman said of the law Taylor is accused of having broken. "And your behavior can't be reckless. If you were reasonable in how you stored your firearm, even if a minor under the age of 14 got a hold of it, you may not be liable."

In the wake of the incident, an assistant principal accused of ignoring warnings resigned and the schools superintendent, George Parker III, was removed by the school board "without cause."

The district has also installed metal detectors and a full-time security guard at Richneck.

"The safety and wellbeing of our staff and students is our most important priority," the school board said in a previous statement, adding that officials "will continue to do whatever it takes to ensure a safe and secure teaching and learning environment across all our schools."

The school district declined to comment Monday about the charges against the student's mother.

Zwerner's lawsuit also alleges that the school district knew the boy had a history of violence and was required to have one of his parents with him during the school day but that on the day of the shooting, no parent was with him and he wasn't assigned a monitor.

Ellenson said this month that the allegations in the complaint involving the 6-year-old "should be taken with a large grain of salt."

"We of course continue to pray for Ms. Zwerner's complete recovery," he said.