DANVERS, Mass. — With few details emerging about the killing of a Massachusetts teacher allegedly by one of her students, classmates returned to school today surrounded by tributes to the victim.
Classes resumed at Danvers High School two days after student Philip Chism, 14, was charged with murder in the death of Colleen Ritzer, a popular 24-year-old math teacher. School had been canceled the previous two days.
Today, with students already in class, the U.S. flag outside the school flew at half-staff, while a row of six trees outside the front entrance were adorned with pink ribbons, Ritzer’s favorite color.
An electronic sign scrolled one of her favorite sayings: “No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”
“RIP Miss Ritzer. Gone, not forgotten,” was written in the school colors of blue and white on car in the student parking lot.
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Extra safety measures were to be in place to reassure returning students, including locked side doors, and more police and counselors on hand, police and school officials told about 800 parents at a meeting Thursday night.
Rabih Chaghouri, whose daughter is a freshman, said he’s confident the school is safe. “This could happen in any neighborhood, any street, anywhere. You never know what goes on in people’s heads.”
Authorities offered no clues Thursday on Chism’s alleged motive. They also would not say how Ritzer was killed. The case was still being investigated, said Carrie Kimball-Monahan, a prosecutor’s spokeswoman.
Tuesday’s school day ended for both Chism and Ritzer in her last-period Algebra I class, where she noticed him drawing in a notebook rather than taking notes, said Chism’s classmate Rania Rhaddaoui, who sat two seats from him.
Ritzer asked Chism to stay after class, Rhaddaoui said, but she didn’t know why.
Ritzer never returned home. Blood in a second-floor school bathroom helped lead investigators to her body, which was dumped in the woods behind the school in this close-knit community about 20 miles north of Boston.
Authorities believe Ritzer was killed after school ended at about 2 p.m., but they have not released a specific time.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Chism bought a ticket to see Woody Allen’s new movie, “Blue Jasmine,” at a local theater, manager Scott Przybycien said. He said police came to the theater Tuesday night
Surveillance video showed Chism entering the theater at about 4:15 p.m., paying $8 in cash for a movie ticket, then leaving at about 6:15 p.m. after the movie ended, Przybycien said.
Police picked up Chism early Wednesday, as he walked along Route 1 in neighboring Topsfield.
Chism appeared briefly in court Wednesday for arraignment on a murder charge and was ordered held without bail. His attorney declined to comment outside court and did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.
Chism had moved to Massachusetts from Tennessee before the start of the school year and was a top scorer on the school’s junior varsity soccer team.
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The school has extensive programs to help ease the transition for new students who may have problems but there was no information about Chism that would have presented any red flags, said Jean McCartin, a Danvers School Committee member.
“He just presented himself to us like any other student would,” she said Thursday. “And that’s what I think is so hard for the administration right now. You know, their hearts are breaking because they just didn’t know he was in need, if he was in need.”
Students also were puzzled. Chism’s teammates on the soccer team have said he was soft-spoken and nonviolent.
Rhaddaoui said Chism was quiet, and she never saw him raise his hand in math class. She said they were also in the same history class, where he told classmates he spoke three languages: English, Portuguese and Japanese.
Caio Silva, a Danvers High School senior and varsity soccer player, said he knew both Chism and Ritzer. He said he and his teammates are helping each other.
“A lot of the guys are really shocked, a lot of guys are down, really upset,” he said.
“It’s just really sad,” he said. “A lady that was really sweet and a kid who was really sweet. It just doesn’t really match up.”
Mark Nolan, of Clarksville, Tenn., who coached Chism in a local youth soccer program for several years when Chism was 9 or 10, said there was nothing unusual about him.
“He didn’t stand out; he wasn’t a troublemaker,” Nolan said. “He had no problem with other kids. He wasn’t overly aggressive.”
Nolan recalled that Chism’s father was in the military and his mother was a social worker. Both parents attended their son’s soccer matches, Nolan said.
Ritzer was described as an enthusiastic, caring teacher who stood outside her classroom and said hello to all students, whether they were in her classes or not.
“She was very approachable,” Rhaddaoui said. “She was always smiling. She always made the best of every situation.”
Ritzer’s family members asked the media in a statement Thursday to respect their privacy as they make arrangements “to celebrate Colleen’s vibrant life.”
Ritzer’s alma mater, Assumption College in Worcester, about 50 miles from Danvers, scheduled a time for reflection at the school’s chapel today. Ritzer graduated from the Roman Catholic college in 2011 with a degree in mathematics.
“She was a talented student in math and education, a cheerful presence in and out of class, and a promising young alumna of Assumption College,” Professor Joseph Alfano, head of the math and computer science department, said in a statement. “We will miss her.”