The Newport News School Board on Wednesday voted to replace its embattled superintendent amid the continuing fallout from a 6-year-old boy shooting his first-grade teacher this month.
The board voted 5-1 to remove George Parker III as the head of the district of about 26,500 students. His separation is effective Feb. 1, School Board Chair Lisa Surles-Law said.
Parker was being removed “without cause,” Surles-Law said, adding that he was a “capable” leader whose removal was based on the “future trajectory and needs of our school division.”
Michele Mitchell, executive director of student advancement for Newport News Public Schools, was named interim superintendent in a 5-1 vote.
Parker declined comment through a district spokesperson Wednesday.
Before the vote, the one school board member to support Parker, Gary Hunter, said he was “perplexed” by Parker’s removal.
In heated comments, Hunter said he had not been present during an earlier vote of no confidence from the board. He spoke of Parker’s separation in stark terms.
“What we’re going to do tonight will be a tragedy if we make a decision without completing an investigation,” he said, adding that Parker’s prior evaluations were “very good” and that “getting someone new is not going to fix the problem.”
“This problem is not a Newport News problem,” he said. “The big elephant in the room is the gun.”
Board member Douglas Brown, who supported Parker’s removal, countered that after hearing from staff and the public, he became convinced that a “new direction” was necessary.
“We’re going to have to become a much more disciplined and safety-oriented board and division,” he said.
Before the meeting, the assistant principal of Richneck Elementary School, where the child shot teacher Abigail Zwerner, resigned. In an email to NBC affiliate WAVY of Portsmouth, Virginia, a spokeswoman for Newport News Public Schools confirmed Ebony Parker’s resignation.
Mark Anthony Garcia Sr., a parent of a second grader at the school, said Wednesday before the board meeting that it was time for Parker to move aside.
“It’s time for somebody else to step up in his place,” he said, citing security lapses at Richneck that occurred prior to the shooting. He added that Parker is “part of the problem.”
School ‘failed to act’ after warnings, lawyer says
Zwerner, 25, was seriously wounded in her hand and chest when she was intentionally shot, Newport News police said. But she still managed to safely escort about 20 students out of the classroom at the elementary school, officials said.
“I believe she did save lives, because I don’t know what else might have happened if those kids would have stayed in that room,” Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew had said.
Zwerner texted a loved one before she was wounded that the boy was armed and that school officials were failing to act, according to a source close to the situation. The source on Tuesday said Zwerner sent the text about an hour before she was shot, writing that the student said he had a gun in his backpack and Richneck administrators weren’t helping.
On Wednesday morning, Zwerner’s attorney, Diane Toscano, said at a news conference that three teachers went to the school administration about the boy’s behavior the day of the shooting. The teachers reported the student was believed to have had a gun on campus, she said.
Zwerner first went to a school administrator between 11:15 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. and said the student threatened to beat up a classmate, Toscano said. A second teacher went to a school administrator at 12:30 p.m. and told the administrator the teacher took it upon herself to search the 6-year-old boy’s backpack.
“The administrator downplayed the report from the teacher and the possibility of a gun,” Toscano said.
A third teacher told an administrator shortly before 1 p.m. that the boy showed a student the gun at recess and “threatened to shoot him if he told anybody,” Toscano said.
A fourth employee asked an administrator for permission to search the boy and was denied, she said.
The administrator told the employee to “wait the situation out because the school day was almost over,” Toscano said.
She said the “administration could not be bothered” and the tragedy was “entirely preventable” if it “had taken action when they had knowledge of imminent danger. But instead, they failed to act and Abby was shot.”
Toscano said she plans to bring forth a lawsuit on Zwerner’s behalf.
The news of the direct warning from Zwerner comes after Parker said at a virtual town hall this month that the boy had come to school late and that his book bag was inspected upon his arrival at the office to sign in, according to parents who watched the meeting.
“At least one administrator was notified of a possible weapon,” Parker said in a video reviewed by NBC News.
A district spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment about Toscano’s allegations.
Students set to return to school Monday
Drew, the police chief, has said that the child’s mother legally bought the 9 mm Taurus firearm used in the shooting and that the boy took the gun from his home. Whether it was properly secured is a key element in the investigation, he has said.
Drew said the investigation entails looking into the boy and his parent’s history. He also said student witnesses will be interviewed.
“If there are any child protective service records, we want to look at those. If there are any school records dealing with behavioral issues or anything at all, dealing with violence, threats,” those reports will also be investigated, he said.
The family of the boy released a statement last week from their attorney, James Ellenson. The family said the gun was secured when it was taken by the child from the home.
“Our family has always been committed to responsible gun ownership and keeping firearms out of the reach of children. The firearm our son accessed was secured,” the statement said.
It also said the boy is disabled.
“Our son suffers from an acute disability and was under a care plan at the school that included his mother or father attending school with him and accompanying him to class every day,” the statement said. “The week of the shooting was the first week when we were not in class with him. We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives.”
The statement added that after the shooting, the boy has been in a hospital receiving the “treatment he needs.”
Richneck has been closed since the shooting. Students are set to return Monday. When it reopens, the elementary school will be outfitted with a metal detector.
Newport News Public Schools, which has had three instances of gun violence on district properties in 17 months, has secured funding for 90 state-of-the-art metal detectors that will be placed at all schools.