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Should school shootings be considered a teacher workplace risk? | #schoolsaftey

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Two Heritage High School teachers are suing Newport News Public Schools for collectively more than $4 million. In both their lawsuits, the teachers emphasize one thing: a shooting should not be considered a risk of their workplace.

The teachers say that school division leaders failed to ensure their safety on the day of the Heritage High School shooting in 2021. Attorneys are representing Michelle Webb, a 12th-grade government teacher, and Leslie Turner, a student-teacher from Old Dominion University who was assigned to Heritage High School in 2021. 

In one of the cases, the attorney said, “The risk of a school shooting was not part of Plaintiff’s employment as a 12th-grade teacher, did not arise out of her student assignment, and was not a rational consequence of risk associated with her work as a teacher.”

This argument comes just a couple of months after Abby Zwerner filed her $40 million lawsuit against the school division for the mental and physical trauma she suffered after a first-grade student shot her at Richneck Elementary School. 

Attorneys representing NNPS filed a “Plea in Bar” motion, saying Zwerner’s injuries fall under worker’s compensation, which would mean Zwerner’s injuries are a result of her job, or considered a “workplace injury.”

 Zwerner’s team declined worker’s compensation, saying the event she suffered from was more of a failure on the school system and not an expectation of her being a teacher.

RELATED: Judge rules in favor of Abby Zwerner’s attorneys over document requests

In the “Plea in Bar,” attorneys referenced the dangers of students using school supplies like pencils, scissors, and other items to use in violent acts, which would apply to worker’s compensation. 

These arguments are highlighting a big concern among teachers, faculty, and staff in schools that this is an expectation of working in a school division. 

“Teachers ask kids to bring pencils and pens and scissors, because that’s what goes on in the school system. We don’t ask for weapons to be in the school system. That’s not an expectation for any teachers or staff,” said James Graves, Newport News Education Association President. 

Graves said he recently learned about the two Heritage HS teachers filing lawsuits and said they have a right to do that. He agreed, though, that the risk of getting shot does not apply to working in a school division. 

“Lawyers are going to do everything they can put doubt, we understand that, but don’t put that on the backs of the teachers and faculty and staff of the school system,” said Graves. “Don’t say getting shot is like getting stabbed with a pencil or scissors. That is totally different.”

Since the Richneck Elementary School shooting, school administrators implemented several new safety measures, including installing metal detectors at every school. 

Graves said he’s been in constant communication with school board members, expressing safety concerns from teachers and offering solutions. He said the school board members have been very receptive and are consistently working on new strategies to keep students safe.

Graves said he wants to change the narrative of workplace expectations by creating a clear dialogue between teachers and school administrators. 

“I want the teachers to know that we’re trying as a union everything we can to make our schools safe and if we have to do it by having more meetings, that’s what we have to do,” said Graves.

Graves said in addition to installing the metal detectors in all Newport News schools, he is working closely with the school board to ensure each metal detector is functioning and there is a person monitoring each one.

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