DANVERS, Mass. — Students return to classes Friday at Danvers High School for the first time since a teacher was allegedly murdered by a 14-year-old student.
The question of why Philip Chism, a seemingly shy freshman soccer player, would allegedly kill his teacher, 24-year-old Colleen Ritzer, still looms large in the small North Shore community. Investigators have not offered any clues about a potential motive or how Ritzer was killed.
Hundreds gathered at the high school Thursday night for a community meeting. Officials and law enforcement were on hand to help calm anxious parents and address concerns.
Danvers Police Chief Neil Ouellette said that while the school will reopen, the bathroom where blood was found will remain closed for the foreseeable future. There would also be extra police and precautions.
“We want [students] to return to normalcy, that’s the goal in this community, to get the community back to where we were,” Ouellette said, acknowledging that it will be difficult. He says the community will never truly recover from the murder, but he wants the students to be able to cope with the tragedy.
Danvers, a small town of about 26,000, is overwhelmingly white — 95 percent according to the 2010 census.
Locals say Danvers is friendly and welcoming. The kind of town where alumni come back to watch the high school football games. The kind of place where shop owners say everyone shows school pride, sporting blue and white, even if they don’t have a kid in school.
The quaint downtown is just a couple of intersections — there are coffee shops, an ice cream parlor and a store with prom dresses in its window. But you also notice the giant American flag at half staff. The murder hasn’t just troubled students and parents, it has rocked the entire community.
Kelly Delaney, who owns a gourmet cake shop in downtown Danvers, has lived in the town for 20 years and says it all feels surreal.
“Watching it on the nightly news, you know, all of a sudden they pinpointed Danvers, Mass.,” Delaney said. “It makes you realize that, wow, this is actually a big event that happened in our town that we now have to say, yeah, remember when? That’s sad, but that’s the reality of what goes on now.”
A few blocks away, at St. Mary of the Annunciation parish, Justin Bell, the church’s youth minister, is dealing with the same kinds of questions. Sunday is the first meeting for confirmation and Bell says he intends to talk about Ritzer’s death as a teaching moment.
“I think a common question that comes up is, how can God allow such tragedy to happen?” Bell said. “And there’s not an easy answer to that right off the bat.”
Bell says even though he doesn’t have a clear-cut answer to that question, it’s a reminder that life is precious. And perhaps, Bell says, it’s an opportunity for folks to turn to God.
“What are some of the root causes in this situation? It’s still very new and it’s not an easy answer. And there won’t be for a while.”