SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 25, 2013

After tragedy, community unites to heal

Principal calls for students to return to Danvers High

BY ALAN BURKE
STAFF WRITER

---- — DANVERS — Hundreds of Danvers High School parents were mostly hushed, last night, as Principal Susan Ambrozavitch explained what happens in the aftermath of the murder of 24-year-old math teacher Colleen Ritzer, the victim, allegedly, of a 14-year-old student.

Ambrozavitch outlined procedures for easing student fears, while urging they come back to class today — not Monday — and find “whatever our new definition of normalcy is.” The parents gave her enthusiastic support, bursting into spontaneous applause at several points. Anyone looking for answers as to why Philip Chism has been charged with the murder, however, was disappointed.

Police Chief Neil Ouellette explained, “At this point we can’t speak. ... We could jeopardize the case and that’s something we won’t do. ... The information will come out eventually.” He did say the school’s technology “weighed in heavily on the investigation,” perhaps a reference to closed circuit cameras.

Students can still expect police questions, Ouellette said. “As investigations roll forward it’s not uncommon for somebody to remember something. ... The goal here is to get to the bottom line, to get to the truth.”

The chief pointed to the presence of NEMLEC (Northeast Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council) officers trained to deal with traumatic situations, particularly in schools, as a sign students needn’t fear returning. Nevertheless, there were those who demanded to know what changes would be made to insure the horror isn’t repeated.

“I know my son won’t feel safe,” someone called out.

That brought forward Wilmington police Lt. Scott Sencabaugh, a member of NEMLEC, who praised Danvers officials. “We can tell you right off the bat — this isn’t lip service ... they’re top notch people.” With Ouellette, he stressed that the building is safe.

Yet when it comes to an event like the death of Colleen Ritzer, Sencabaugh indicated, it’s difficult even in retrospect to see what should have been done. “You can’t explain it,” he said. And for the future, “You try to do everything you can, folks. But these aren’t prisons. They’re schools. And kids come here to learn.”

“We don’t even know where this came from,” said Ambrozavitch. “Our staff is devastated.” She described how teachers and students comforted each other during Wednesday’s vigil. Today was to be blue and white day in honor of Ritzer, she said.

Describing a “horrific event,” Ambrozavitch asked the gathering to remember that a family lost a daughter, sister and “a mom lost a son.” She urged people “not to demonize the child. We don’t know all the facts.” With teen students, she added, it’s important to keep emotions in check.

Ambrozavitch was measured in a lengthy presentation, faltering only once before asking, “Please forgive me. I’m really nervous.”

Parents filled a row of basketball bleachers along an entire wall of the school field house as well as three rows of folding chairs along both baselines and halfway up the opposite sideline. At times there were tears as they heard the principal concede of the students, “I know it will be difficult to walk into the building. As it was for many of us.”

Grief counseling will be available. Faculty and administrators were to meet kids out front as they arrived this morning. Wary parents were encouraged to come with their kids if they felt it necessary. If students balk at attending, “We will come to your house and talk to your child.”

The school is to have truncated periods to allow kids to visit with each one of their weekly classes. “We thought it was important that they see every teacher,” Ambrozavitch said.

“The next thing I’m going to talk about is more difficult,” she said before explaining that the second floor bathroom, where Ritzer was said to have been attacked, was going to be off-limits. Students will, however, be encouraged to visit her class “and just sit there,” while math teachers from the current faculty, familiar faces for the kids, will teach Ritzer’s students.

Finally, Ambrozavitch noted that she’s never been a supporter of Halloween observances. But in this case, she cited the importance of sustaining student traditions. “And they start doing their costumes in the ninth grade,” she said, earning, at last, a laugh. “I love the kids in Danvers High School.”

“I think Danvers High School is phenomenal,” said parent Joyce St. Hilaire, after the meeting. “The school system here is outstanding. They constantly go above and beyond the call the duty.”

“I thought they did a good job,” said Kim Spicer of the presentation. “They do the best they can.”

Numerous public officials attended the event, including Town Manager Wayne Marquis, Superintendent Lisa Dana, School Committee Chairman Eric Crane and Rep. Ted Speliotis.