St. Louis students return to school where shooting occurred

Jan 16, 2023, 7:06 PM | Updated: Jan 17, 2023, 12:02 pm
School staff cheer as students returned to in-person classes at Central Visual and Performing Arts ...

School staff cheer as students returned to in-person classes at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. The Oct. 24 shooting was among the deadliest school shootings in the U.S. last year. Tenth-grader Alexzandria Bell and 61-year-old physical education teacher Jean Kuczka died before police killed the gunman, former student Orlando Harris, in an exchange of gunfire. (AP Photo/Jim Salter)

(AP Photo/Jim Salter)

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A red carpet, welcome signs, cheers and high fives welcomed students back Tuesday at Central Visual Arts and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis, nearly three months after a young gunman killed two people and injured seven others in a rampage inside the school.

The Oct. 24 shooting was among the deadliest school shootings in the U.S. last year. Tenth-grader Alexzandria Bell and 61-year-old physical education teacher Jean Kuczka died before police killed the gunman, former student Orlando Harris, in an exchange of gunfire.

Alexzandria’s mother, Keisha Acres, joined teachers, faculty and administrators who stood outside the entrance Tuesday, offering encouragement to students returning for the first day of in-person classes since the shooting. Students had been learning online only.

“I’m overwhelmed but I’m here for the kids,” Acres said. “So it’s not about me, it’s about them.”

Some kids exchanged high fives and smiles. Others walked stoically through the crowd of well-wishers. A few shielded their faces from the cameras.

Principal Kacy Shahid said the school now has armed security. Therapists and other support services are available. Bullet-riddled walls have been fixed and painted.

“That incident that happened Oct. 24 does not define who we are as a school,” Shahid said.

It was among 51 school shootings in the U.S. last year that resulted in injuries or deaths, according to tracking by Education Week. The deadly attacks included the killings of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in May.

Manfret McGhee is dean of arts at the St. Louis school, and a parent. His 16-year-old son was among those shot. McGhee said the boy is recovering well “physically as well as emotionally” and was among the returning students.

“I actually feel good that we’re getting back to business,” McGhee said. “I’m one of the ones who feel that it’s important to get back to a sense of normalcy.”

Patrice Hill, parent of another junior, also believes her daughter will benefit from a return to school.

“She’s a kid. She’s 16. Hopefully she can become — I don’t want to say normal — but OK with being back around everyone,” Hill said.

Harris, 19, had a long history of mental health problems. Police said relatives monitored his mail and often checked his room to make sure he did not have a weapon.

In fact, Harris’ mother called police on Oct. 15 after she found an AR-15-style rifle and wanted it removed. Missouri does not have a red-flag law aimed at keeping firearms away from people who may be a danger to themselves or others. As a result, officers “did not have clear authority to temporarily seize the rifle when they responded to the suspect’s home when called by the suspect’s mother on 10/15/22,” police said in a statement days after the shooting.

Instead, someone known to the family was contacted and took the gun. Somehow, Harris was able to get it back.

The school was locked, with seven unarmed guards at the doors, on the morning of Oct. 24, school leaders have said. One of the guards initially became alarmed when he saw Harris trying to get in one of the doors.

That guard alerted school officials and made sure police were contacted. Harris managed to get inside — police have not disclosed exactly how. Police said he had around 600 rounds of ammunition with him.

Gunfire inside the building forced students to barricade doors and huddle in classroom corners, jump from windows and run out of the building to seek safety. Several people inside the school said they heard Harris warn, “You are all going to die!”

Police officers, some of them off-duty, arrived within four minutes of the 911 call. Amid the chaos, officers found the gunman on the third floor, barricaded in a classroom. Police said that when Harris shot at officers, they shot back and broke through the door, killing Harris. He had ammunition strapped to his chest and in a bag. Other magazines were found dumped in stairwells.

Harris graduated from the school in 2021. In a note left behind, he lamented that he had no friends, no family, no girlfriend and a life of isolation. His note called it the “perfect storm for a mass shooter.”

Central Visual and Performing Arts shares a building with another magnet school, Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, which also was evacuated as the shooting unfolded. Central has around 380 students, Collegiate around 340. Collegiate students returned to class Nov. 28.

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St. Louis students return to school where shooting occurred