A $40 million lawsuit in the notorious case where a 6-year-old boy shot his teacher in Virginia is going forward, a local judge in the case has ruled.
The defendant, Newport News Public Schools, had previously tried to block the lawsuit, arguing that precedent in Virginia case law shields school districts from the consequences of violence in schools against teachers under workers’ compensation laws.
Those laws caps settlement amounts.
But lawyers for the teacher who was shot argued that such laws should not apply because a teacher could not possibly anticipate being shot as one of the general risks for a job in a classroom.
“We are eager to continue our pursuit of accountability and a just, fair recovery. No teacher expects to stare down the barrel of a gun held by a six-year-old student,” attorneys Diane Toscano, Jeffrey Breit and Kevin Biniazan for the plaintiff, Abby Zwerner, told The Lion in a statement.
The judge agreed.
“The danger of being shot by a student is not one that is peculiar or unique to the job of a first-grade teacher,” said Judge Matthew W. Hoffman in a copy of the opinion obtained by The Lion.
Violence is rising in many classrooms, however.
An investigative report by Virginia’s local WKTR 3 found that violence against teachers is growing in areas such as Hampton Roads and nearby Newport News.
“Disrespectful doesn’t even begin to describe it,” said one retired teacher, who asked not to have his identity revealed for fear of retaliation from the district he used to work for, according to WKTR.
The teacher told WKTR that violent behavior is only intensifying.
WKTR cited a study done by Education Week Research Center, which said 10% of teachers have been physically assaulted.
Insurance Journal has also reported that lawyers in the Virginia case included statistics by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to buttress claims “that Newport News Public Schools have also experienced threats and attacks by students resulting in injuries, restricted duty, and days away from work.”
Incidents in Newport News Schools include, “hitting, kicking, biting, tripping, punching to the face and/or stomach, throwing items and furniture, including desks, books, water bottles, and even sharpened pencils, in addition to pushing, shoving, and the like,” said the insurance trade journal.
It could be significant, however, that missing from the list is an assault with guns.
Critics could argue that allowing boards of education to hide growing levels of violence behind workers’ compensation laws, especially shootings, with capped liabilities, does nothing to encourage school boards to actually address violence in schools, especially violence against teachers.
James Fedderman, the President of the Virginia Education Association (VEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union, previously claimed that teachers were frightened to return to work because of the level of violence in Virginia schools.
“Educators are not wanting to go back to a crime scene. Public education is like a crime scene. Educators are the victim and parents are upset,” Fedderman, told local WTVR News 6.
Zwerner’s case still faces an appeals process, which could reverse the judge’s decision and uphold previous decisions that violence against teachers falls under simple workers’ compensation laws.
Calls to the VEA’s Fedderman and the Newport News School District by The Lion were not returned as of publication.