Mother of 6-year-old who shot Virginia teacher says son has ADHD

Categories: ABC News

“I am, as a parent, obviously willing to take responsibility for him.”

ByMark Guarino

May 10, 2023, 5:07 AM

Deja Taylor, the mother of a 6-year-old boy who allegedly shot his first grade teacher in January, says she is willing to take responsibility for the incident, and that her son’s actions can be linked to his ADHD diagnosis.

“I am, as a parent, obviously willing to take responsibility for him because he can’t take responsibility” for himself, she said in an exclusive interview with ABC News.

Taylor is charged with a felony count of child neglect and a misdemeanor count of recklessly leaving a firearm as to endanger a child, prosecutors said. Her bench trial is scheduled for Aug. 15.

Abby Zwerner, her son’s teacher, has recovered from the shooting. She filed a $40 million lawsuit in April against the Newport News School District and Richneck Elementary officials claiming they ignored multiple warnings about the student’s behavior, as well as concerns that he may have a gun. Lawyers for the school board have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming her injuries are covered under the state’s worker’s compensation law for which she was approved to receive benefits, but which she turned down.

Taylor describes her son as a “great kid,” but “very energetic” due to his condition. “He’s off the wall. Doesn’t sit still, ever,” she said.

In interviews and in her lawsuit, Zwerner characterized the boy as violent and said he “slammed the cellphone on the ground so hard that it cracked and shattered.” In the lawsuit, she also claimed the child had a “history of random violence” and that he “attacked students and teachers alike.”

According to Taylor, the boy “actually really liked” Zwerner and said during the week of the shooting “he felt like he was being ignored.” The cellphone incident happened after Zwerner said she told him to sit down when he was asking her a question.

“You know, most children, when they are trying to talk to you, and if you easily just brush them off, or you ask them to sit down, or you’re dealing with something else and you ask them to go and sit down, at 6 [years old] you — in your mind would believe that, ‘Somebody’s not listening to me,’ and you have a tantrum,” Taylor said.

“He threw his arms up. He said, ‘Fine.’ And when he threw his arms up, he knocked her phone out of her hand on accident,” she said. A suspension resulted from the incident. Taylor claimed only the screen protector had broken, and she says she had offered to pay for its replacement.

Zwerner’s attorney declined to comment Tuesday.

The shooting took place the day the student returned to class from the suspension, according to the lawsuit.

James Ellenson, Taylor’s attorney, said the ultimate responsibility for the shooting is on school officials who prematurely enrolled the student in first grade despite knowing he had only attended two months of kindergarten and two months of pre-K. They were also aware of his ADHD diagnosis, Ellenson claimed.

“If they believed all of these behaviors to be true, then they should not have allowed him” to advance to a higher level, Ellenson said. “They should’ve put him back into kindergarten, possibly even pre-K, but at the minimum to kindergarten.”

A spokesperson for Newport News Public Schools told ABC News it could not comment on issues related to “a student’s educational record.” A representative for Briana Foster Newton, the principal of Richneck Elementary School at the time of the shooting, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from ABC News.

According to the boy’s family, the school informed Taylor she and other family members were no longer required to be present in the classroom, a request they made in the fall due to the boy’s behavior challenges.

“He had started medication and he was meeting his goals, academically,” she said. Taylor’s grandfather, Calvin Taylor, who has legal custody of the boy, agreed that “his behavior had changed [for the better] in the classroom” prior to the incident.

“He was more attentive, he tried to follow along, he tried to do the coursework,” Calvin Taylor said. “But in all fairness to the other kids in the class, sometimes it was just too much for him.”

Nothing about his behavior on Jan. 6, the day of the shooting, made it seem like something was wrong, Calvin Taylor said. “It was almost like a normal day for him … He was happy, you know?” he said.

Ellenson said the gun was legally purchased. Deja Taylor says she last saw it when it was locked, but since then, Ellenson said, “nobody knows” how the boy obtained it. At the time, Deja Taylor’s mental state was frail, she and Ellenson both said. She said she was suffering from postpartum depression following a succession of miscarriages and had been hospitalized for a week.

Now possibly facing up to six years in prison, Deja Taylor said she feels regret. “I just truly would like to apologize that … she [Zwerner] did get hurt. We were actually kind of forming a relationship with me having to be in the classroom. And she is really a bright person.”

The more appropriate sentence Taylor should face if she is liable for alleged negligence, said Ellenson, would be probation or community service.

The boy remains in the legal custody of Calvin Taylor, who said the boy is in school elsewhere and getting therapy. He said he worries, however, about the boy’s future living in Newport News.

“I just don’t think the constant negativity [from] my community is allowing this to boil over,” he said. Deja Taylor, he said, should not be absolved for her actions, but deserves to be looked at “as a human being who made a mistake.”

“Jan. 6 was a terrible day for a lotta people,” he said. “A terrible day for the teacher, a terrible day for the kids that was in that classroom, a terrible day for my great-grandson, and a terrible day for the community and my other family members and friends.”

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