Mother of 6-year-old Who Shot Teacher in Virginia Gets 2 Years in Prison For Child Neglect
Associated Press - December 18, 2023 10:29 am
Deja Taylor arrives at the United States Courthouse, Sept. 21, 2023, in Newport News, Va. with her lawyer James Ellenson.(Billy Schuerman-The Virginian-Pilot via AP, File)
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — The mother of a 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher in a Virginia classroom was sentenced on December 15, 2023 to two years in prison for felony child neglect by a judge who chastised her for abdicating her responsibilities as a parent.
Deja Taylor’s sentence was much harsher than the maximum six months prosecutors had 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.
Circuit Court Judge Christopher Papile said the sentencing guidelines did not take into account the shooting’s physical and psychological toll on first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner or the emotional trauma it has wrought on 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, had five surgeries, and says she is so mentally scarred by the shooting that she does not plan to return to teaching.
Papile noted that “we are lucky” someone wasn’t killed at the elementary school. In admonishing Taylor, the judge said a parent’s ultimately responsibility is to “protect the child, to keep them from bad influences, to keep them from dangerous situations, to keep them healthy and nurtured. Ms. Taylor has abdicated most, if not all, of those responsibilities.”
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 this military shipbuilding city.
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 9 mm 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.
Moments later, 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.
Taylor initially told police she had secured her gun with a trigger lock, but investigators said they never found one.
Following the shooting, the boy was removed from his mother’s custody and spent 227 days in inpatient treatment, during which he was attended to by a team of physicians, psychiatrists and other clinicians, prosecutor Travis White told the judge. 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,” the prosecutor said, calling the shooting “a consequence and manifestation of that neglect.”
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.
The elder Taylor said the boy is now doing well in a structured environment. The child told him that he wanted “Santa to bring his mom home for Christmas.”
Deja 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.”
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 recounted 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. “My life will never be close to the same again.”