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St. Louis arts students offer songs, tributes to classmate and teacher after shooting

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Veronica Russell, a 17-year-old student at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, invites community members up to dance on Sunday during a "Family Undivided" community event honoring two people who were killed at the south St. Louis school last month.

The mood was somber but resolutely upbeat Sunday as hundreds of students, teachers, family members and friends gathered at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in search of healing.

They met under the autumn sun on the school’s athletic field, sitting on aluminum bleachers and folding chairs spread out on the grass, two weeks after the shooting deaths of a student and a teacher.

The gathering, organized by students and dubbed “A Family Undivided,” was part rally, part performance, part community healing session. The two-hour program from an elevated stage included songs, dances and other tributes to student Alexzandria Bell and teacher Jean Kuczka.

Bell, 15, and Kuczka, 61, were shot and killed Oct. 24 after a 2021 graduate of the school broke into the building, police said, and began firing bullets at students and staff, injuring six others.

Bell’s family laid her to rest at Friedens Cemetery on Saturday, after a funeral service at Faith Church in Earth City.

Several students from the performing arts high school said their contributions to the program were helping them recover from the shooting.

“We not sad. We not crying. We happy. We smiling. We smiling for Alex. We smiling for our school today. We not crying no more,” senior Veronica Russell said from the stage in a welcome message.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Jaylen Washington, left, a 16-year-old Central Visual and Performing Arts student, reacts while pulling out lanterns next to Zy’riah Taylor, 16, on Sunday during a "Family Undivided" community event at the school in south St. Louis.

Most who gathered Sunday wore T-shirts in the school colors of black and gold. Representatives from community groups that work with young people displayed program information on tables at one end of the field, where a machine launched bubbles into the air.

During one break in the program, students, teachers, parents and even school security guards broke into synchronized dance steps as V.I.C.’s 2008 hit “Wobble” blared from stage speakers.

“There are so many people that have come out here to support us. We are out here to say we are still alive. We are a school of celebration. We're a school of life. We're a school of vibrance,” said Rayquan Strickland, a senior at the school and a lead organizer of the event, as people streamed onto the field before the performance.

 A photo of the late Alexzandria Bell sits on a makeshift memorial on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, after a gunman killed two people and injured six others at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A photo of the late Alexzandria Bell, a 15-year-old Central Visual and Performing Arts High School dance student, sits on a makeshift memorial on Oct. 25 after a gunman killed two people and injured seven.

A plea to parents 

Kuczka was a mother of five who had taught in St. Louis Public Schools since 2002, after 18 years teaching at the Catholic school Seven Holy Founders. She was a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and won a national championship with the 1979 Missouri State University field hockey team.

Bell was an avid dancer who performed with school groups and the St. Louis Dazzling Diamonds, a dance troupe at the Diamond Dance Academy in Ferguson. She had been looking forward to progressing from intermediate to advanced dance classes at the school.

“She was very kind. I think that everybody should have met her, literally, because she’s just a wonderful person,” sophomore Bachelle Miller said.

Keisha Acres, Bell’s mother, took to the stage to urge parents to watch for signs their children may be having emotional difficulties.

“I want you to listen with your whole body, your entire body, because I guarantee your children are telling you what's wrong with them,” she said. The attacker left a note saying that he had no friends or close connections, police say.

“Sometimes they are asking for help, but they can’t say the physical words,” Acres said. “I don’t want any of y’all, none of the adults here, to feel the pain that I feel every day.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Keisha Acres, the mother of 15-year-old shooting victim Alexzandria Bell, tells a crowd of hundreds to stay on top of their loved one’s mental health needs on Sunday during a "Family Undivided" community event in south St. Louis.

Strickland said Bell was a positive example for her friends and classmates.

“She was a beautiful soul, both inside and out. She really was pure at heart. Alex was somebody who was really vibrant and alive. She really was a peacemaker. If we all had the heart of Alex, I promise you this world would be a better place,” Strickland said.

Marius Macfadden, a senior at the school, participated in two dance tributes to Bell. After performing, he said that following the shooting, students welcomed the chance to pay tribute with their art.

“It felt good to finally start back dancing again,” he said. “I missed it.”

The program culminated at sunset as school vocal group Voices of Soul performed the devotional song “Trust Me” while the families of Kuczka and Bell stood onstage and members of the school community launched two dozen flaming paper lanterns into the air.

As the lanterns floated into the distance, the sun set behind the bleachers and the moon rose above the school, behind the stage.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Veronica Russell, second from left, a 17-year-old student at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, leads roughly 100 demonstrators in calling for new gun legislation on Sunday during a march in south St. Louis. A teacher and student were killed during a school shooting at Central VPA last month.

A call for action

Before the rally, students marched down Kingshighway near the school in support of stricter gun laws and in remembrance of their fallen classmate and teacher.

Russell said she’d like to see gun laws changed to require more training for gun-buyers and to keep teenagers from purchasing assault rifles. If more legal controls were in place, she said, Bell would still be alive.

“She had so much going for her and she was looking towards the future,” Russell said of her friend shortly after the march. “But unfortunately that was taken away from her at the hands of Missouri laws that are too lenient. We need to start getting restrictions in place now before it ever happens again, before another future is taken away.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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