South City school shooting still a mystery, experts say information in unreleased police reports could save lives

Almost one year after a gunman killed a teacher and student inside a South City high school, SLMPD has released few details about the attack.
Published: Aug. 28, 2023 at 10:34 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Almost one year after a gunman killed a teacher and student inside a South City high school, St. Louis Metropolitan Police have released few details about the attack, information that could help keep schools in St. Louis and across the country safe.

First Alert 4 Investigates found police have quickly shown transparency in several recent mass shootings.

On Aug. 23, 2023, a man opened fire at a Dollar General in Jacksonville, Florida, killing three people in what investigators describe as a racist attack. Within 24 hours of the shooting, the Jacksonville Sheriff released a detailed timeline, information about the shooter and his guns, and clips of surveillance video before the shooting.

On April 10, 2023, an employee at a Louisville, Kentucky bank walked into work with an assault rifle and killed five co-workers, then turned the gun on police. The next day, police shared body camera video, pictures of the gunman, a timeline, and bystander cell phone video.

In Nashville, on March 27, 2023, a former student killed a custodian, two teachers and three young students at the Covenant School. Within hours of the shooting, police released surveillance video clips and also provided details about the shooter and their guns. The day after the shooting, police released six minutes of body camera video.

All three are cases from this year of attacks by heavily armed shooters where police showed quick turnarounds in transparency.

In St. Louis, it’s a different story.

On Oct. 24, 2022, Orlando Harris shot his way into the shared campuses of Central Visual and Performing Arts High School and Collegiate School of Bioscience and Medicine. Police say Harris, a 19-year-old former student at Central VPA, was armed with more than 600 rounds of ammunition, injuring four people and killing two. Jean Kuczka, 61, a health and PE teacher and Alexzandria Bell, a 15-year-old student, died.

Almost a year later, much of that day is a mystery. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department claims it can’t release more information, even to the families.

“Could it have been prevented? We still have a lot of questions that haven’t been answered,” Joe Kuczka, Jean Kuczka’s son, told First Alert 4 earlier this year.

Police have not released any video from the day of the shooting, and there is no detailed timeline of the response, especially of key moments that led up to the shooting and after the shooting.

Little information about the shooter, who was killed by responding officers, has been shared.

Police said the gunman’s family called officers nine days before the shooting because they were concerned about his mental health and tried to get his gun taken away.

“The officers, in their response, handed it over to someone else, an adult who was lawfully able to possess it,” explained St. Louis Police Lieutenant Colonel Michael Sack during a press conference hours after the shooting. At the time, Sack was the department’s Interim Chief.

On Oct. 26, SLMPD confirmed that the firearm that family members tried to get away from Harris was the same gun used in the CVPA shooting.

First Alert 4 even went to court trying to get more records about the shooter’s past and mental health history, which could show how the system handled him and if warning signs were missed. In Missouri, those records can be made public if the court finds a compelling reason. The court denied First Alert 4′s request.

“It’s a heartbreaking situation, but we need to learn from this,” said St. Louis-based Attorney Elad Gross, who has spent years fighting for better access to public records. Gross said timing matters in incidents like Central VPA.

“There’s not really an excuse at this point not to be releasing this information,” Gross said. “We really need to know, as the public, how do we prevent this from happening again and what are best practices we can put in place to protect all our kids?”

For Gross, it’s also personal. He was driving by Central VPA the day of the shooting, not knowing what just happened inside.

“I saw the response, and it was quick, and folks went in,” Gross said. “But something led up to that moment where somebody was able to get into that school with a weapon. With the weapons that are available right now here on the streets of St. Louis City, it is not hard to do a lot of damage very quickly, and it just would be good to know what can we do to make sure kids are safe.”

Students at Central VPA are already back in class from summer break. School safety experts say not knowing the lessons learned from the shooting could impact students not just in St. Louis but at schools across the county.

“We’re missing an opportunity to keep students safe going into this school year,” said David Riedman, who started the K-12 Shooting Database, which tracks attacks on schools nationwide dating back to 1970. “If there is not transparency and there is not readily available information, then school security plans are being based on assumptions and old information.”

Riedman said the St. Louis attack stands out because of how students acted. On the day of the shooting, several students told First Alert 4 they jumped out of windows to escape.

“It sounds like many of the students self-evacuated from the school, and that likely saved their lives,” Riedman explained. “If that is a documented finding, that’s very important for other schools to think about. Do we want to lock down the building and have students stay in the classroom, or do we want students who are able to get away from the building as quickly as possible?”

For months, First Alert 4 Investigates has been pressing for answers and started asking for records from the day of the shooting.

The St. Louis Public School District, Federal Bureau of Investigations, and St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department all denied requests for records. All three are publicly funded agencies that won’t release public records in this case.

Jay Greenberg, Special Agent in Charge at the FBI’s St. Louis Field Office, said that the decision to release information is a local decision.

“So SLMPD is the lead for the CVPA shooting,” said Greenberg. “I cannot stress enough how fortunate we are to have the professionals from Metro and from fire and EMS here locally who responded and eliminated that threat. In terms of ongoing investigation and release of information in concert with the community and the school, that’s really a local decision. I would encourage you to talk to [SLMPD] about that.”

First Alert 4 Investigates asked St. Louis police for records multiple times. The department sent back a thread of messages, first claiming the shooting is an open investigation and later saying it needs more time to review the records because of “the volume/complexity of this request, as well as staffing.”

Recently, the department sent another message saying the request for records was denied “until the final report is completed.”

“You don’t need to wait on the full report to release best practices and lessons learned so that other school districts can be immediately taking action to keep students safe,” Riedman said.

First Alert 4 Investigates took concerns to Police Chief Robert Tracy. In April, he said he’d look into it, but months went by without an answer. The I-Team requested an interview, but the department said no. Instead, the I-Team caught up with Tracy during his August town hall, a monthly meeting he holds with the community, which is a stipulation in part of his salary.

“It is a priority of mine as the Chief of Police, and I promise to take a look as quickly as possible,” Tracy said.

When asked how schools can know if the best policies and practices are in place or if things should be expanded, Tracy answered, “Well, we’re in touch with the schools, the school superintendents, the principals and everything, and they’re going through their internal active shooter training.”

Tracy was sworn in as Chief in January 2023, almost three months after the shooting, and has touted his focus on police transparency. He confirmed to First Alert 4 Investigates video of the shooting is being used to train officers.

“I think you should see it, and you should see it sooner than later,” Tracy said. “There really is nothing to hide. We don’t hide. We’re transparent, but we want to make sure that investigation is done thoroughly.”

When asked if a year is too long, Tracy responded, “We’ll get this out, and anyone that’s been calling up, we talk to all the schools, we talk to corporate events, we talk to them about what they can do for safety tips, maybe we haven’t broadcasted it through the media, but certainly we’re having conversations behind the scenes.”

Months before Central VPA, the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, stands as a glaring example of why transparency is so important.

On May 24, 2022, a gunman killed two teachers and their 19 fourth graders, one of the deadliest school shootings in the nation’s history.

For months, families of the victims and survivors fought for answers. When body camera and surveillance video were eventually released, it showed how 376 responding law enforcement agents waited more than an hour to enter the classroom and kill the gunman.

The Uvalde shooting is changing the conversation on school safety nationwide.

“We handled that very fast, quickly. It didn’t happen like other places down in Texas. I don’t really want to get into that, but you can see when things are handled the right way and when sometimes they go awry,” Tracy said.

If there are lessons to be learned from the Central VPA school that can keep teachers, students, and first responders safe, Riedman believes they need to be shared to help save innocent lives. He keeps pointing back to the Central VPA students who say they jumped from windows to escape the shooter.

“For the last 20 years, schools have been planning for classroom lockdowns. At Uvalde, that did not work well,” Riedman said.” At Central VPA, just a couple months later, when students left the building by every means possible, it saved the lives of dozens of students. There was a shooter who was heavily armed in their school, and they got away. And if that is a recommendation that should extend to other schools, that’s something we need to know now. We can’t hide that information.”

Special Agent Greenberg said law enforcement has to be careful about what information they put out.

“One thing we always want to avoid is providing information that may produce another vulnerability down the road somewhere else,” said Greenberg. “So in authority, we have to be very careful with what we push out; very thoughtful, very deliberate, in terms of what we make available. So we are not actually arming future attackers with potential information about vulnerabilities.”

The FBI said they are training school leaders to identify at-risk students and how to find ways to help them. The goal is to prevent people from escalating to violence.

“What we’re asking people to do is look around them and find out those people who are having changes in substantial behavior,” said Greenberg. “It could be somebody who’s really outgoing all of a sudden becomes withdrawn, that may not be a person that’s contemplating violence, that may just be somebody who needs help. But if we can get them help earlier in a cycle, then we can sort of give them a positive runway to deal with whatever it is that’s plaguing them.”

Greenberg said there are indicators when a student may be thinking of committing a violent act in a school.

“These same sort of indicators that some student may be considering something violent in a school, they’re the same indicators that somebody in a general community may be giving off as well,” he said. “That’s when we see the way that they talk about violence changing. When it becomes controlling. When they become withdrawn. When they start talking about violence or joining into conversations of ‘Hey, I’m going to plan this violent attack’ or ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if’ or ‘Don’t come to school tomorrow, don’t come to work tomorrow,’ these are similar conversations that we want to prepare employers and broader communities for, and we’re really hoping it starts in schools and spreads from there.”

To make a confidential report on possible school violence, you can call Courage2Report at 1-866-748-7047, text “C2R” to 738477 or visit Courage2Report’s website.