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Student charged in Mass. high school teacher's slaying

| Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer is seen in this undated photo provided by the family of Ritzer. Fourteen-year-old high school student Philip Chism is accused of killing Ritzer, a well-liked math teacher at Danvers High School, in Danvers, Mass., whose body was found in the woods behind the school early Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013.
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A boy leaves a flower outside Danvers High School near Boston on October 23, 2013.
Philip Chism, 14, stands during his arraignment in the death of Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer in Salem District Court in Salem, Mass., Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013.

DANVERS, Mass. — A well-liked teacher was found slain in woods behind this quiet Massachusetts town's high school, and a 14-year-old boy who was found walking along a state highway overnight was charged with killing her.

Blood found in a second-floor school bathroom helped lead investigators to the body of Colleen Ritzer, a 24-year-old math teacher at Danvers High School who was reported missing when she didn't come home from work on Tuesday, Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said.

“She was a very, very respected, loved teacher,” Blodgett said.

The suspect, Philip Chism, was arraigned on a murder charge and ordered held without bail.

The teenager, described by classmates as soft-spoken and pleasant, did not go home from school the day before and was spotted walking along Route 1 in the neighboring town of Topsfield about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Officials did not release a cause of death and haven't discussed a motive in the killing. The Essex District Attorney's office intends to pursue a grand jury indictment for murder, allowing Chism to be treated as an adult in court.

A court filing said Ritzer and Chism were known to each other from the high school, but it did not elaborate. The arrest was made based on statements by the suspect and corroborating evidence at multiple scenes, investigators said in court documents.

Ritzer's family said they are mourning the death of their “amazing, beautiful daughter and sister.”

“Everyone that knew and loved Colleen knew of her passion for teaching and how she mentored each and every one of her students,” the family said in a statement provided by her uncle, Dale Webster.

At his arraignment in adult court in Salem, Chism's defense attorney argued for the proceeding to be closed and her client to be allowed to stay hidden because of his age. The judge denied the request. The lawyer, Denise Regan, declined to comment.

The tall, lanky teenager had moved to Massachusetts from Tennessee before the start of the school year and was a top scorer on the school's junior varsity soccer team, said Kyle Cahill, a junior who plays soccer.

He said the team had been wondering about Chism when he skipped a team dinner on Tuesday.

“We're all just a family. It just amazes me really,” Cahill said. “He wasn't violent at all. He was really the opposite of aggressive.”

Ritzer had a Twitter account where she gave homework assignments, encouraged students and described herself as a “math teacher often too excited about the topics I'm teaching.”

She was a 2011 graduate of Assumption College in Worcester, a school spokeswoman said. She graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in math, a minor in psychology and a secondary education concentration, according to the college's 2011 commencement program.

One of her former students, Chris Weimert, 17, said she was a warm, welcoming person who would stand outside her classroom and say hello to students she didn't teach. He said she had been at the school for two years.

“She was the nicest teacher anyone could ever have. She always had a warm smile on her face,” he said.

Ryan Kelleher, a senior, said students related to the young teacher. Kelleher, who also plays soccer, said the arrest of the soft-spoken Chism didn't make sense to him.

“From what I know about him and seeing him every day, it just doesn't add up that he would do such a thing, unless this was all an act to fool somebody,” the 17-year-old said.

Ritzer lived at home with her 20-year-old brother and her sister, a high school senior. The close-knit family was often outside, barbecuing, spending time together and enjoying each other's company, neighbors said.

All public schools in Danvers, about 20 miles north of Boston, were closed on Wednesday.

The high school's students were planning a candlelight vigil that evening.

Ritzer is the second teacher allegedly killed by a student in the nation this week. A Sparks, Nev., middle school teacher was allegedly shot by a student on Monday.

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