DANVERS, Mass. — Hundreds of Danvers residents came together Wednesday night to grieve the murder of a popular math teacher.
Colleen Ritzer, 24, was found dead in the woods behind Danvers High School Tuesday night. A freshman student, 14-year-old Philip Chism, has been charged with her murder.
It’s not just students who gathered, trying to make sense of the murder. Parents and folks with no children in the school system came alongside students for the vigil outside the high school Wednesday night.
Some teens huddled in a prayer circle. Others wiped away tears and lit candles for their lost teacher.
“She was the kind of teacher that blamed herself if you got a bad grade. And she was always there for us, always,” said freshman Rania Rhaddaoui, one of Ritzer’s algebra students, her voice shaking as she broke into tears. “She was always happy, always smiling, even if it was a Monday morning.”
For Rhaddaoui, the shock is too much. She knew both Chism and Ritzer. She says Chism was in her algebra class.
“He was shy, he didn’t talk much. He was very smart, he was in honors classes,” Rhaddoui said. “He was very nice. It shocks me. Nobody would ever think he would do something like this.”
After class Monday, Rhaddoui says Chism stayed behind apparently for extra help, while she went off to rehearse a school play.
Now, students and parents such as Gail Wade are trying to understand whatever happened next.
“You don’t think about this happening. You see it happen other places, you don’t think it’s going to happen in your town,” Wade said. “Brand new, beautiful school. Wonderful teachers, wonderful curriculum that they have here for the kids.”
Classes were cancelled for the town’s high school students for a second day Thursday, but the school will be open for students to meet with counselors. Officials say classes are scheduled to resume Friday.
Kyle Cahill, a fellow student who played on the soccer team with Chism, says Chism had just moved to Danvers.
“I didn’t know him too well but he played soccer with me so, like, I knew him as a person,” Cahill said.
Students went looking for Chism Tuesday evening after he was reported missing, having never returned home after school. Later Tuesday night, Ritzer was also reported missing.
After midnight, Chism turned up. He was found by police walking along Route 1 in nearby Topsfield.
Court documents say investigators interviewed Chism and also reviewed video surveillance from the school.
Chism was charged as an adult with first-degree murder and is being held without bail.
Ryan Kelleher, who also played soccer with Chism, says he and other students are trying to understand how something like this could happen.
“He moved here in the summer. I can’t think of any reason after a month that you would have that much hatred, or whatever it was, to do that,” Kelleher said. “She was just the nicest person.”