Student says slain Danvers math teacher asked suspect to stay after school for help on test
DANVERS — The high school math teacher who was allegedly slain by a 14-year-old student asked the student to stay after school on the day she was killed because she wanted to help him with an upcoming test, a student in the class said today.
Student Rania Rhaedaoui said she was in Colleen Ritzer’s algebra class on the last period of the day on Tuesday, along with the suspect, Philip Chism.
“She saw him drawing during class and she just said to him, ‘I didn’t know you could draw,’” said Rhaedaoui, a 14-year-old freshman.
“I sit really close to him, so I could hear,” she said.
Rhaedaoui said she later heard Ritzer ask Chism to stay after school.
“She just said, ‘Can you stay after with me?’ He just gave a nod.”
“There was a test coming up, and she wanted to know if he had any questions on learning equations,” Rhaedaoui said.
Cambria Cloutier, another 14-year-old freshman, who was also in the class, said she walked by Ritzer’s classroom at about 3:15 p.m., more than an hour after the class had gotten out at 1:55 p.m. “She was standing at her computer, and he was just sitting there,” Cloutier said. “It just looked normal, like any other day.”
Chism, who moved to Danvers this summer from Tennessee, was ordered held without bail Thursday in the death of Ritzer, 24, who was recalled as a natural teacher devoted to her students.
Ritzer’s body was found early Wednesday morning in the woods behind the school. Few details of Chism’s alleged crime, including his possible motive, have been disclosed by investigators, and they declined comment today.
Also today, a Danvers movie theater manager said Chism had watched a movie after school Tuesday at Hollywood Hits, a six-screen complex on Endicott Street.
Scott Przybycien said Chism came into the building at 4:15 p.m. Chism paid $8 in cash for a ticket to the 4:30 p.m. showing of “Blue Jasmine,” a Woody Allen film.
“He sat alone in Theater Two,” said Przybycien. Chism, who was caught on the theater’s surveillance video, was dressed in a sweatsuit, and did not purchase any concessions, Przybycien said. Chism did not say or do anything to draw attention to himself, Przybycien said.
“There was nothing about his manner, or the way he was dressed, that stood out. A teen dressed in a sweatsuit is not unusual here,” he added. Chism left the theater about 6:15 p.m., the manager said.
The school reopened today, offering grief counseling for students and families. Students arrived in shock and in tears. “There were people in the school, and no one, like, knew it was happening,” Amanda Finn, 18, said as she arrived.
Finn said Ritzer was not one of her teachers, but she had a cheery presence.
“She was so nice. She would see you in the hall and say, ‘Hey, great outfit!’” Finn said.
Finn said she came to school to support the teachers. “I know so many of them were friends with her,” she said.
Other schools in the town were to operate normally, according to a statement released Wednesday by School Superintendent Lisa Dana. The high school is expected to resume its normal schedule on Friday.
Officials also scheduled an informational meeting for 6:30 p.m. in the school’s field house.
Orange leaves littered the grass in front of the high school, under trees reduced to bare branches. A clutch of black balloons was tied to the blue-and-gold school sign out front. Pink ribbons — pink was said to be Ritzer’s favorite color — were tied to tree trunks.
A memorial left over from a candlelight vigil attended by hundreds on Wednesday night included pink and white candles and handwritten condolence notes. One note said, “Another Angel Gone Too Soon.” Another said, “RIP Colleen Ritzer.”
A Red Sox teddy bear lay next to a pot of yellow mums. Roses wrapped in cellophane, and other tokens, such as a small stuffed pink whale, were also included. The flag flew at half-staff and the electronic message board in front of the school displayed another tweet by Ritzer: “No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy.”
June McEachern arrived at the school with her son, Kyle, a sophomore, for grief counseling.
“As a parent, I don’t know how to console” a child through such a tragedy, she said. ”What can you say to a child?” She hopes the counseling provides guidance about how “to make the best of a bad, bad situation.”
Nicole White, a freshman who had Ritzer for geometry, said Chism was in her biology and history classes.
“He was just really quiet,” said White.
She said Ritzer was “gentle and sweet . . . She wanted the best for everyone.”
Sarah Roach, 14, another freshman who had Ritzer for geometry, said she hoped the counseling “will make us feel more comfortable going back to school” on Friday.
“I’m kind of nervous about going back to [Ritzer’s] classroom,” Roach said. Roach said Ritzer had a fun, light-hearted approach to teaching geometry.
“She’d say things like ‘Yay, more proofs today!’” Roach recalled.
A spokeswoman for Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, whose office is overseeing the murder investigation, said prosecutors would not be commenting on the case, except through court filings.
“This is an active and very fluid investigation, and it is inappropriate for me to make any comments about the possible findings of that investigation while it is ongoing,’’ said Carrie Kimball Monahan.
She said that no additional charges had been filed against Chism – who faces a single count of first-degree murder – and no one else has been arrested.
“I am not going to make any comments on any evidence that we have found,’’ she said in a brief telephone interview.
Ritzer was reported missing at about 11:20 p.m. Tuesday when she did not return home and did not answer her cellphone. Police went to the high school, where they found blood in a second-floor bathroom, prompting a search of the grounds and the discovery of her body shortly before 3 a.m. Wednesday, authorities have said.
Chism was last seen around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the theater, police have said. Danvers police issued a tweet, seeking him as a missing child at 9:25 p.m. that night. Chism was found by police in neighboring Topsfield at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, walking north on the southbound side of Route 1.
Chism was the leading scorer on the school’s junior varsity team. Several of Chism’s soccer teammates said he had mysteriously vanished Tuesday afternoon, missing a team practice at 4 p.m. and a team dinner at 6. Teammates last saw the youth running away from the practice field, breathlessly telling them he had something he needed to take care of.
The students said Chism was an amiable, hard-working boy who loved soccer, and who had bonded quickly with his new team.
Chism had moved in recent months from Tennessee to Danvers with his mother and sisters, friends said. His father has remained in Tennessee and has no contact with him, according to his teammates. The teenager had attended school in the Clarksville-Montgomery County school system in Tennessee since fourth grade, except for one year in Florida. He left in May, a school spokeswoman said.
A law enforcement official briefed on the investigation said the teacher was stabbed and cut. It appeared, according to the official, that a box cutter was used. The official declined to speak for attribution, citing the sensitivity of the investigation.
In a police report filed in Salem District Court, where Chism was arraigned Wednesday as an adult on a charge of first-degree murder, investigators said the teenager “assaulted and subsequently murdered” Ritzer, then disposed of her body. A not-guilty plea was entered on his behalf.
The law enforcement official said surveillance footage from inside the school showed Chism pushing a recycling bin through the hall and outside the building. Authorities are trying to determine if Ritzer’s body was in the bin.
Evidence was found at multiple scenes at the school and the surrounding woods, police said. Police charged Chism after interviewing him and reviewing the footage.
A statement released today by a spokesman for the Ritzer family said, “The Ritzer Family is most grateful for the outpouring of support during this very difficult time.”Peter Schworm and Maria Cramer of the Globe staff, and correspondents Jasper Craven, Melissa Hanson, Jeremy C. Fox, and Nicholas Jacques contributed to this report.