DANVERS — Danvers High students returned to their classes Friday for the first time since the community suffered the unimaginable, the slaying of a popular young math teacher, Colleen Ritzer, allegedly at the hands of one of her 14-year-old students.
Some students welcomed the return to routine, but when asked if the day was a normal school day, they said it was anything but.
“No, a lot of cries and hugs. It was so sad,” said sophomore Samantha Granito. “Being all together was nice, but it’s still really hard.”
Superintendent Lisa Dana said in an email, “Today was another positive step in the healing process for the DHS community.”
Students wore blue and white for a Spirit Day held to recognize Ritzer. They gathered in assemblies and went to all their classes, and some posted messages to Ritzer on her classroom door, using sticky notes, students said.
Ninth- and 10th-graders met with teachers and administrators first thing in the morning in the auditorium, followed by a meeting with juniors and seniors, Principal/Assistant Superintendent Sue Ambrozavitch said in an email. Grief counselors were at the school, as were additional police officers.
“We met with a lot of classes, but there was a lot of grieving,” said freshman Zachary Macadam, 14. “... We just wanted to just grieve and just deal with the fact that a beloved teacher is gone.”
Police have charged Danvers High freshman Philip Chism with murder in Ritzer’s death. She is believed to have been killed sometime after school on Tuesday. Her body was found in a wooded area behind the school in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
All Danvers schools were closed Wednesday, and Danvers High School was closed Thursday, as well, except for grief counseling in the morning.
Friday, Ritzer’s classroom was left open for students who wanted to visit. Sophomore McKenzie Plaza read a text she sent to her mother during the school day about what it was like to go to her teacher’s classroom:
“I’ve cried in every class, but I just went into her classroom and I could honestly feel my teacher still in there smiling at us. I could feel her warmth and instantaneously I stopped crying and I was very happy. I realized what happened was awful, but she would not want us to live our life defined by this.”
Plaza said she still thinks of Danvers High as “a great place.”
“What happened was awful, but we have great staff,” Plaza said. “Everyone was coming together. There was so many people watching us today, encouraging us to say what we needed to say and express ourselves. That is not going to define us; we are still a great school and still a great community.
“It was just different. Everyone was just different,” said junior Drew Salvo, who said students did more talking about what happened than school work. “No one ever expected this to happen.”
Many students described it as “a sad day,” though they welcomed the chance to be back together at school.
School Committee Chairman Eric Crane said he spoke briefly with Superintendent Lisa Dana and was told the day “went as well as it could,” given the circumstances.
“I support what the administration did with the overall plan to get the students back into school today,” Crane said.
In an email to the Danvers High community sent Thursday night, Ambrozavitch wrote: “As a school, we are doing our best to walk students through the grief process so that we can begin to heal. It will take a long time, but with the love and support that has been shown to us by parents, community members, staff members and schools and individuals from far and wide, we will get through this.”
Outside, students continued to stop by a makeshift memorial on the lawn.
Junior Troy Fleming, who was in Ritzer’s honors geometry class last year, placed flowers at the memorial.
“It was hard for me,” he said.” I just tried to block it out of my head. I loved her, and it hasn’t really hit me yet. It doesn’t really feel like it really happened.”
Fleming said he still wants Danvers to be thought of as a great community.
“We will get through it together because we are a loving community,” he said.
Melanie Hagen and her brother Michael, both Danvers High graduates, stopped by the school Friday to add a bouquet of flowers to the memorial.
“It really makes you think how fragile life is,” Michael said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.
SCHOLARSHIP FUNDS STARTED Two scholarship funds were established yesterday in memory of Danvers High math teacher Colleen Ritzer. One will benefit students at Danvers High School, where she was a teacher. The other will benefit graduates of Andover High who are pursuing a career in teaching. Ritzer lived in Andover and was a 2007 graduate of Andover High School. "We are simply overwhelmed by the many generous offers of so many who wish to support a lasting legacy for Colleen," read a statement from the Ritzer family establishing the Andover scholarship. "We believe that this scholarship fund is an appropriate way to honor Colleen's tireless and dedicated work as a teacher and hope that through this fund, others will be inspired and provide the resources to pursue such a worthy and rewarding profession." Gifts to the Colleen Ritzer Memorial Scholarship at Andover High can be made through The Essex County Community Foundation, at the website https://secure.etransfer.com/EssexCCF/ColleenRitzerMemorialFund.cfm. Checks can also be mailed to the Essex County Community Foundation, 175 Andover St., Danvers MA 01923. A former Danvers High parent, Todd Randall, helped established the Colleen Ritzer Scholarship Fund to be awarded to a graduating senior at Danvers High this spring. "We are not going to let tragedy like this diminish Danvers High in any way, shape or form," said Randall, whose daughter graduated from the school a couple of years ago. Gifts to the Colleen Ritzer Scholarship Fund can be mailed to People's United Bank, 1 Conant St., Danvers MA 01923, Attention Glenn Boutchie. Donations also can be dropped off at the branch.