ST. LOUIS – St. Louis police commanders were quick to tout the swift response of officers to a school shooting that happened one year ago, but the department still has left many questions unanswered.
Jean Kuczka died on Oct. 24, 2022, when the health teacher used her body as a shield after the gunman shot his way into her classroom.
Kuczka’s son, Joe Kuczka, has gone through a cycle of emotions.
“Everything has changed for me,” he said. “My mom was my biggest supporter in everything I did.”
Alexzandria Bell, 15, a sophomore at Central Visual Performing Arts High School (CVPA), was also killed.
Several others were injured when the 19-year-old shooter, a CVPA graduate, stormed the school.
“She put herself in front of her students and that’s all you can do. Someone has a gun, and you have a bunch of children, you have to protect them,” Joe Kuczka said.
Kuczka said after his mother was shot, she told her students to jump from the third-floor window to survive.
Jean graduated from Lindbergh High School and had been an educator since the early 1980s. Kuczka jokes his mom taught half of St. Louis.
“She was my mom. She was great, of course, but it was more than that. She was mom to countless students,” Kuczka said.
Kuczka said police showed him some surveillance and body camera video from that day, answering some questions but leaving more.
“I know there was a security guard very close when he entered the school. We saw it on the video,” Kuczka said. “He walked around and shot at a lot of people.”
Kuczka claimed the shooter had planned the attack “for a long time” and talked about it in a manifesto, but his mom’s name was not in the manifesto.
St. Louis Police Lieutenant Colonel Michael Sack previously said the gun used by the shooter had been privately purchased but taken away by officers days before.
“The officers, in their response, handed it over to somebody else: an adult who was lawfully able to possess it. The mother wanted it out of the house,” Sack said at the time. “They [officers] facilitated that. This other party had it. How he acquired it after that, we don’t know.”
There are still details surrounding the gun and timeline of events that remain unanswered because police consider the investigation open, something that surprises Kuczka.
“I know it’s a lot that goes into it, but I guess in a way, yes, it does surprise me,” he said.
During a recent media briefing, St. Louis Police Sergeant Charles Wall said it’s a large, in-depth investigation.
While the department is unable to answer many questions, police have shared photos from that day, like the picture of the gun used and how many rounds of ammo the former student turned killer had.
“I believe that the report, the investigation, is reaching the finalized stages. I can’t speak to exactly where it is or when it’s going to be finished,” Wall said. “Certainly, it has been a priority for our agency.”
Wall said the report is hundreds of pages long.
Kuczka wonders if there was anything that could’ve stopped the shooting from happening.
Former television news reporter Julie Parker teaches top police commanders across the country how to communicate with the public. She’s also lectured a class at the FBI Academy in Quantico.
Parker can’t speak specifically to what’s happening in St. Louis but has a general philosophy about how police operations work.
“Get that information out as much as possible, as early as possible,” Parker said. “We have seen numerous examples where a law enforcement agency responds heroically to a critical incident. They win in terms of the operation, but too often, we see they fail in terms of public communication.”
In Nashville, Tennessee, police released bodycam video hours after a gunman stormed a school and killed six people.
Why is the police department in St. Louis operating so differently? Parker said it’s up to the chief.
“One law enforcement agency can provide so much information and then across the country or across the state, you might see police departments provide virtually nothing,” Parker said.
Kuczka said there are things to learn from police communicating more about the before, during and after of that day.
“Nothing is going to bring my mom back, but we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.
While there are many questions, the most important may never be answered: why?
“I want to make sure the schools are doing everything they can to protect their students and that the first responders are prepared to go in,” Kuczka said.
Lindbergh High School just started the Jean Kuczka Memorial Scholarship. They plan to do that each year and the family hopes a scholarship will be available at CVPA soon.