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CVPA families face fear and painful memories of deadly shooting as students return to school

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Yurisky Velazquez Vera, a 16-year-old sophomore at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, boards the school bus on Tuesday in south St. Louis. Velazquez Vera was in the classroom where teacher Jean Kuczka was shot and killed last October. Today marks the first day students return to CVPA after the attack late last year.

Lee este reporte en español.

There’s a saying that Yurisky Velazquez Vera has thought about since the shooting at her high school in October — “It's okay not to be okay.” That was something her teacher, Jean Kuczka, used to say.

Yurisky was in Kuczka’s class at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School on Oct. 24, when a shooter killed the health and physical education teacher. The shooter also killed Yurisky’s classmate Alexzandria Bell and injured multiple other people, before he was shot and killed by police.

Kuczka’s students, who resumed in-person classes at the magnet high school on Tuesday, remember her as a compassionate teacher, but also a hero. Yurisky said the 61-year-old teacher died protecting her and her classmates. As she’s processed the trauma from that day, she’s repeated Kuczka’s advice that it’s ok to not be ok.

“I feel lost to the point when I just can't handle my sadness,” Yurisky said. “I just cry my eyes out and it feels surreal. These days, it's been really tough.”

Yurisky Velazquez Vera, a 16-year-old sophomore at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, looks in a mirror while getting ready for school on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, at her home in south St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Yurisky Velazquez Vera, a 16-year-old sophomore at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, looks in a mirror while getting ready for school on Tuesday at her home in south St. Louis. "I hope for a better environment for future kids so they don't have to worry about getting shot at," she said. "I also hope for change on gun laws to have a better world."

In the months since the shooting, the sophomore said she’s been writing poetry and dancing to process her feelings. She also talked to a counselor soon after the tragedy and hopes to talk to more professionals once she is back at school.

Last week, she and her classmates went to an open house at CVPA to prepare for their return. Some changes at the school are positive, like new doors, new windows, new paint and murals. There are more cameras and more security guards, both armed and unarmed.

But some of what Yurisky saw brought back negative feelings.

“It made me very nervous,” Yurisky said. “And when I went to that third floor at my school, it feels like a dream. But at the same time, you're in reality.”

Kuczka’s room, where Yurisky was during the shooting, is now blocked off. But Yurisky still has some classes on the third floor so she can’t completely avoid it. It brings her back to the fear she had that she wouldn’t see her family again.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A Central Visual Performing Arts Strong t-shirt and family pictures adorn a wall Tuesday at the home of Yurisky Velazquez Vera, a 16-year-old sophomore at the high school, in south St. Louis.

Calls for change

Yurisky’s mom, Azucena Vera, is also worried about her daughter’s return to school. Yurisky called her during the shooting and Vera said as she heard gunshots in the background, she wanted to become a bird, to fly to the school and get her daughter out.

“I didn't even think about it,” Vera said. “I just drove to school to see what was going on. My heart went to the floor when I saw all the police and the tape.”

At CVPA, there are now armed security guards, but when the shooting happened, there were not. Instead, St. Louis Public Schools has an armed response team that rotates between schools. Vera wishes the new armed guards were there before the attack.

“Don't wait until things happen to try to make a change,” Vera said. “Do things to avoid it.”

She and her daughter are also disappointed that there hasn’t been a change to gun laws in Missouri following the shooting. Vera thinks it should be harder for people to get these weapons.

There are social and emotional resources Vera wishes could be available to prevent things like this.

“My main thing is, we should look out for everybody,” Vera said. “If anybody is having mental problems, or if somebody is being rejected, let's welcome that person so they don't start creating hate in their heart.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Yurisky Velazquez Vera, a 16-year-old sophomore at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, prays alongside her mother Azucena Vera before going to her bus stop on Tuesday in south St. Louis. Today marks the first day students return to CVPA after a school shooting last October that left two dead — 15-year-old Alexzandria Bell and teacher Jean Kuczka.

A homecoming

Early on the first day of class, Yurisky’s street in South City was quiet. She woke before the sun rose to get ready for school. She brushed her teeth and packed her backpack. Her little brothers tried to cheer her up, chanting, “Yurisky is a queen.”

“I just want to move on from the accident that was not supposed to be happening in that school,” Yurisky said as she washed her face. “I’m even shaking.”

Before getting to her bus stop, she prayed with her mom.

At the school, staff rolled out a red carpet underneath an arch of yellow and black balloons – the school’s colors. Teachers, parents and alumni gathered around the entrance and cheered as buses pulled up.

As the sun rose, students approached the entrance looking nervous, but most broke into smiles as they saw the welcome that awaited them. Jay Mitchell is a CVPA alumnus who was cheering for students, offering high fives.

“Encouragement, thanking them for coming back and welcoming them knowing that we are CVPA Strong, nothing ever changes about that,” Mitchell said. “We will grow and develop out of this even more and nothing can stop us.”

Kate Grumke talks about this story on 'St. Louis on the Air'

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Jay Mitchell, right, a 31-year-old alumni of Central Visual and Performing Arts from Pagedale, welcomes hundreds of students back to school on Tuesday in south St. Louis. Today marks the first day students returned to the high school after an attack at the school last October that left two dead. Keisha Acres, 15-year-old victim Alexzandria Bell’s mother, stands behind Mitchell in white.

Keisha Acres also came to welcome students. Her 15-year-old daughter, Alexzandria Bell, was killed in the shooting. Acres said she was feeling overwhelmed but seeing the kids walking in returned her spirit.

“I would just want everybody when you start to feel overwhelmed, to just take a breath and just keep Alex in the forefront of your mind,” Acres said. “And when you feel like you want to give up — don't. And the biggest thing is, do it because she can't.”

Principal Kacy Shahid hopes students and staff will show up with their authentic feelings as they return to school.

“When you work with individuals who are in tune with their interests and passions, such as our students, whether it's the vocal music, whether it's dance, whether it's instrumental music, visual art, you are around some magical individuals and so that creates an energy,” Shahid said. “I say we're vibrating on a different frequency. So I want my students to be in tune with who they are as artists, as creatives, and let their light shine.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Cars whiz by Central Visual and Performing Arts High School on Tuesday morning in south St. Louis.

Sophomore Yurisky Velazquez Vera, like some other students, is still worried about going back to the south St. Louis school.

“School was my second home,” she said. “Whenever I feel stressed, or just anxious, I just go to school and dance. That school, it was full of happiness, cheerfulness, everything. But since [the shooting] impacted my school, it all changed, like just in the flick of a finger.”

For school to feel safe again, Yurisky said she’ll have to take everything a day at a time. But she’s looking forward to getting back to dancing and is excited to tell her friends how much she missed them.

Brian Munoz contributed to this report.

Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

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