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St. Louis High School Teacher Remembered As A Hero For Saving Students From School Shooter

Central Visual and Performing Arts High School physical education teacher Jean Kirk Kuczka is being remembered as a hero for saving her students when a gunman opened fire at a St. Louis high school.

By Constance Johnson
Slain St. Louis Teacher Remembered After School Shooting

The daughter of the St. Louis high school teacher killed during a shooting rampage on Monday called her mother a “hero” and said her mother died protecting her students.

“When I first heard about the shooting, I had no idea it was my mom. But I know she got in front of the gunfire to save those kids. That was her passion. My mom’s a hero,” Abbey Kuczka told KSDK.

Jean Kirk Kuczka died when a 19-year-old graduate of the Central Visual and Performing Arts High School entered her classroom on Monday. The 61-year-old stood in front of the gunman to protect her students and was shot, police told her daughter, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Alexzandria Bell, 15, was also killed and seven other students — all under the age of 16 — were hurt before police entered the school and killed Orlando Harris during an exchange of gunfire.

A personal photo of Jean Kuczka

One student told the Post-Dispatch that the shooter's gun jammed, preventing him from shooting.

“All I heard was two shots and he came in there with a gun,” Taniya Gholston, 16, told the Post-Dispatch, according to the Associated Press. “I was trying to run and I couldn’t run. Me and him made eye contact but I made it out because his gun got jammed.”

Harris graduated last year, but it’s unclear if he targeted Kuczka and her class. He left a chilling handwritten note in his car.

Police said that, in part, it read: “I don’t have any friends I don’t have any family, I’ve never had a girlfriend, I’ve never had a social life, I’ve been an isolated loner my entire life. This was the perfect storm for a mass shooting.”

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Police said he was armed with an AR-15-style rifle and had more than 600 rounds of ammunition.

Kuczka, a physical education teacher, joined the school staff in 2008. She was the mother of five children and seven grandchildren, according to the school’s website.

“I cannot imagine myself in any other career but teaching. In high school, I taught swimming lessons at the YMCA. From that point on, I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she wrote in her teacher message. “I believe that every child is a unique human being and deserves a chance to learn. I also believe that Health is the most awesome subject in school, because, without your health, you cannot live to your fullest potential. I love teaching Health and Physical Education and guiding students to make wise decisions. Respect is my favorite word!”

Kuczka also coached cross-country at Collegiate, a St. Louis magnet school that was on the same campus as the Central Visual and Performing Arts High School.

“This was her first year of empty-nesting, and she was looking for something extra to do,” Abbey Kuczka told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “She was definitely looking forward to retirement though. She was close.”

Kuczka told the newspaper that her mother had previously expressed concerns about school safety after a student from another school managed to bring a gun into the high school.

“She mentioned that, but other than that, she didn’t really think anything about safety concerns,” her daughter said. “I mean, I think people think it will never happen to them.”

Kuczka is remembered by family, friends and colleagues for her dedication and spirit.

“Brings peace of mind to know the impact that she left on this world. And truly, we didn't even know the impact that she had on all of these students until now,” her daughter told KSDK-TV.

She was also reportedly passionate about raising funds to find a cure for diabetes, as her son was diagnosed with the disease at age 10, according to the school’s website.

“Jean, as a teacher, she used her writing as a way to raise awareness for type 1 diabetes, and also to help people see that you can go do things, you can go make a difference,” her friend and the former CEO of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Derek Rapp told KSDK.

He said Jean was an advocate for JDRF, raising more than $50,000 via her bike rides for the organization.

“This was going to be her 16th ride for JDRF over all these years," Rapp said. "We were going to be doing the ride together this year again,”  

Rapp told the station that he plans to ride 23 miles in silence in honor of his friend.

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