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Two teachers killed this week: How safe are US schools? (+video)

The killing of a popular high school teacher in Danvers, Mass., just one day after a teacher was killed in Nevada drives home educators' vulnerability. But schools are still regarded as safe, experts say.

By Staff writer / October 23, 2013

Philip Chism, 14, stands during his arraignment for the death of Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer in Salem District Court in Boston, Massachusetts October 23. Chism was held without bail on a murder charge.

Patrick Whittemore/Reuters


Residents of Boston’s North Shore suburbs were struggling to absorb the news Wednesday that Danvers High School math teacher Colleen Ritzer was murdered, and that a 14-year-old male student has been charged.

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A 14-year-old student faces a murder charge in the death of a teacher found in the woods behind a Massachusetts high school. Police located Colleen Ritzer's body overnight. The case prompted the closing of Danvers public schools Wednesday.

The tragedy occurred one day after the Sparks Middle School shooting in Nevada, in which police say math teacher Michael Landsberry was killed by a 12-year-old male student who then killed himself.

Two communities on opposite sides of the country are now grappling with the loss of beloved teachers, and renewing the national soul-searching about school safety and how to identify and help distressed young people before they turn to violence.

“It’s rare for a student to kill a teacher … but in trusting relationships there is some vulnerability,” and educators are likely to be reflecting on that in the wake of these incidents, says David Schonfeld, a pediatrician and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

“School campuses are still among the safest places in the country, but that doesn’t take away the hurt and sadness when someone is lost at school … and we have to do more to ensure the safety of the students and those who work there,” says Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, an educators’ union in Washington.

Workplace deaths among elementary and secondary school staff are rare, and homicides even more rare. In 2012, the Department of Labor reports 40 deaths and 7 homicides in public and private K-12 schools – which likely includes the six staff members killed in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.

Between 2003 and 2010 the number of workplace homicides in schools fluctuated up and down between 3 and 7, according to the Labor Department’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.

The homicides are not always by students. Across all industries, 12 percent of homicides of both men and women are by students, patients, or clients.

Yet just within the category of shootings, at least 17 teachers, principals, and other staff members have been killed by students since 1995, according to a map summarizing school shooting incidents published by USA Today.  

In Danvers, investigators found blood in the school after Ms. Ritzer was reported missing late Tuesday night. Her body was recovered from woods nearby the school.

Student Philip Chism was also reported missing Tuesday when he did not return home from school, and was picked up by police on a road in a nearby town after midnight. He was arraigned on a murder charge in adult court Wednesday and held without bail. The judge denied his defense attorney’s request to keep his name hidden because he is 14.

Each case brings up slightly different issues for teachers, school crisis experts says.


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