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News / Nation & World

Mother of 6-year-old who shot teacher in Virginia gets 2 years in prison for child neglect

By BEN FINLEY and DENISE LAVOIE, Associated Press
Published: December 15, 2023, 2:00pm

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The mother of a 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher in Virginia was sentenced Friday to two years in prison for felony child neglect by a judge who chastised her for abdicating her responsibilities as a parent.

The sentence given to Deja Taylor by Circuit Court Judge Christopher Papile was much harsher than the maximum six-month sentence prosecutors agreed to recommend as part of a plea deal and also surpassed the high end of advisory state sentencing guidelines.

Taylor, 26, pleaded guilty to a single count of felony neglect in August. As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to drop a misdemeanor count of recklessly storing a firearm.

Papile said the sentencing guidelines did not take into account the psychological and emotional impact the shooting had on first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner or other students and staff at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News.

Zwerner was critically injured when the boy fired a single shot at her, striking her hand and chest, breaking bones and puncturing a lung. She spent weeks in the hospital, has had five surgeries, and has said she is so psychologically scarred by the shooting that she does not plan to return to teaching.

“We are lucky that it was not somebody killed at Richneck Elementary,” Judge Papile said.

The state sentence handed down Friday was the second time Taylor was held to account for the classroom shooting in January, which stunned the nation and shook the military shipbuilding city of Newport News.

Taylor was sentenced in November to 21 months in federal prison for using marijuana while owning a gun, which is illegal under U.S. law. Her state sentence will be served consecutively, making a combined state and federal sentence of nearly four years behind bars.

Taylor’s son told authorities he got his mother’s 9mm handgun by climbing onto a drawer to reach the top of a dresser, where the firearm was in his mom’s purse. He concealed the weapon in his backpack and then his pocket before shooting Zwerner in front of her first-grade class.

Taylor initially told investigators she had secured her gun with a trigger lock, but investigators said they never found one.

Prosecutor Travis White said the boy, now 7, had problems with “basic socialization” and suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome and insomnia, among other disorders.

“That is the depths of neglect that Deja Taylor inflicted on her child,” White said. He called the shooting “a consequence and manifestation of that neglect.”

After the shooting, the boy spent 227 days in inpatient treatment, during which he was attended to by a team of physicians, psychiatrists and other clinicians, White said.

The boy now lives with his great-grandfather, Calvin Taylor, who told reporters after the hearing that he believes the sentence handed down by Papile is “excessive.” He said Deja Taylor tried to get help for her son before the shooting but child protective services did not follow through on her request.

Taylor did not speak during Friday’s hearing. Her attorney, James Ellenson, said Taylor struggled with addiction and domestic violence. He said Taylor, 26, smoked marijuana “all day, every day” since age 15.

“Who knows what the effects were on that teenage brain?” he said.

Ellenson said earlier this year there were “ mitigating circumstances,” including Taylor’s miscarriages and postpartum depression. She also has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a condition sharing symptoms with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to court documents.

Taylor told ABC’s “Good Morning America” in May that she feels responsible and apologized to Zwerner.

“That is my son, so I am, as a parent, obviously willing to take responsibility for him because he can’t take responsibility for himself,” Taylor said.

During her sentencing in federal court last month, one of Taylor’s attorneys read aloud a brief statement in which Taylor said she would feel remorse “for the rest of my life.”

After the shooting, the boy told a reading specialist who restrained him, “I shot that (expletive) dead,” and “I got my mom’s gun last night,” according to search warrants.

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Zwerner is suing Newport News Public Schools for $40 million, alleging administrators ignored multiple warnings the boy had a gun at school the day of the shooting.

During the sentencing hearing Friday, Zwerner recalled the shooting, telling the judge: “I was not sure whether it would be my final moment on earth.”

She said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, and has difficulty sleeping.

“The shooting has instilled many fears in me that will remain forever,” she said.

She said she will not return to teaching because she’s now afraid to work with children.

“Now, at 26 years old, what am I supposed to do?” she said.

She added, “My life will never be close to the same again.”