Educators ‘outraged’ after attorneys argue 1st-grade teacher shot in school is ‘workplace injury’

The Newport News Education Association President condemned the premise of the school division’s motion to dismiss Abigail Zwerner’s pending $40 million lawsuit.

The motion was filed last week by attorneys representing the School Board and argues that Zwerner, who was shot in her classroom at Richneck Elementary in January by a 6-year-old student, is only entitled to file a worker’s compensation claim because the injury she sustained from the shooting is a “workplace injury,” and that the shooting was a hazard of the job.

James Graves, the president of the Newport News teachers union, says that argument is “ridiculous.”

“This is not military, this is not the police department. This is an education system,” Graves said in an interview Wednesday.

In a Facebook statement posted Tuesday, Graves said, “These lawyers have started a significant hurricane in our district by saying that being shot is part of what teachers signed up for.”

Such statements, he said, are “a slap in our faces.”

Graves said all school staff who work with students, including security officers and custodial workers, have expressed concern about the motion.

“This has been an emotional roller coaster ride to me and to all the teachers,” he said. “Teachers are very upset and they’re coming out strong. They have woken up a bear.”

Graves called on all school staff to attend upcoming board meetings.

The filing from the board’s attorney last week states that it is the “unfortunate reality” that teaching in America is a profession not without its dangers.

“One cannot assess the state today of education-based employment in the United States without paying attention to the problem of violence in its classrooms,” the filing states. It cites examples across the country of teachers being hospitalized after attacks by students, and statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics that say 192,500 public school teachers were physically attacked by students in a 12-month period in 2015-16. That includes 153,700 elementary school teachers.

Graves said being shot is not the same as getting attacked with a pencil or a pair of scissors, supplies that are expected to be in a classroom.

Zwerner’s attorneys last week said “no one believes” that getting shot by a 6-year-old would be an expected risk of teaching first grade.

Graves said he is also concerned that the rhetoric in the motion can affect teacher recruitment efforts to the division.

But the worker’s compensation defense was not a surprise, and attorneys for Zwerner appeared to allude to it in their “notice of claim” before the lawsuit was filed.

Nour Habib,