Why St. Louis hero teacher Kuczka did what cops couldn’t - GulfToday

Why St. Louis hero teacher Kuczka did what cops couldn’t


A photo of Alexzandria Bell, 15, rests at the scene of a growing floral memorial to the victims of school shooting at Central Visual & Performing Arts High School. Tribune News Service

Will Bunch, Tribune News Service

There were two stories out of the American heartland this week that mostly got lost in a frenetic autumn of political anxiety and baseball joy (or sorrow), but demand a few moments of our attention for what they say about what we value in this country — and what we should be ashamed about for not valuing more.

In Uvalde, Texas, where in May a teenage mass shooter murdered 19 students and two teachers, more police bodycam footage was released this week that confirmed what we’ve already come to learn about that tragedy over the last five months: Our nation’s police culture is broken.

Despite widespread belief to the contrary, police are often more concerned with self-preservation and social control than stopping crime. Nearly 400 law enforcement officials rushed to the scene in Uvalde, yet they took some 77 minutes to stop a lone active shooter.

Bodycam footage obtained by the Sinclair TV station in San Antonio shows officers acknowledging that the gunman was still gunning down little kids and discussing their personal fears while they waited for a different response team to arrive. They did not take action soon enough.

“What’s the safest way to do this?” one officer asked. “I’m not trying to get clapped out.” A colleague responded, “Me neither,” and later added: “And I don’t like standing near the window where we can get shot, bro.”

Knowing that 19 students and two teachers were murdered that day, this footage can be difficult to watch. This week, another disaffected male teenager got his hands on a high-powered AR-15-style assault weapon and 600 rounds of ammo. He then shot up his former school — this time, a high school in St. Louis. The armed 19-year-old who entered Central Visual and Performing Arts High School on Monday morning — despite locked doors and metal detectors — killed a 15-year-old student and an adult. It could have been much worse.  That is partly because the police response was much better than it was in Uvalde. Around 14 minutes passed from the first 911 call to the moment when officers killed the teen shooter in a gunfight. But during those agonizing moments in between, the killer’s rampage was likely slowed by the actions of a 61-year-old grandmother in glasses who did something that scores of young male cops at Uvalde with guns and body armor did not. Jean Kuczka, a health and physical education teacher, confronted the St. Louis gunman and sacrificed her own life in a confrontation that likely bought time for her students to scurry out of harm’s way. She didn’t pause to think about “what’s the safest way to do this?” or slowly ponder the situation with some “bro.”

She acted. Kuczka was a schoolteacher who gave everything for her kids — in life and in death.

Although the school shooting is still under investigation, Kuczka’s fellow teachers and students say that she put herself between the gunman and her pupils when the killer entered her high school classroom, Room 323.

“When I found out, the first thing I could think about was ... that’s how much she cared about the students,” a former student now in her 20s, Alexis Allen-Brown, told CNN. “She was going to save those babies.”

No one who knew Kuczka — who had devoted her adult life to education and was pondering retirement — was surprised by her actions. Her life story seems guided by two things: a devotion to fitness and athleticism (which included attending Missouri State University on a field hockey scholarship and playing on its 1979 national championship team) and teaching the next generations.

“I cannot imagine myself in any other career but teaching,” Kuczka wrote in her online bio, which pictures her in full bicycle-racing attire. “In high school, I taught swimming lessons at the YMCA. From that point on, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I believe that every child is a unique human being and deserves a chance to learn ... Respect is my favorite word!”

And with that attitude, it’s hardly a surprise that she earned as much respect as she gave during a lifetime of service. “She made you feel real, inside the class and out,” a onetime pupil, Allen-Brown, recalled. “She made you feel human. And she was just so sweet.”

In talking about teachers and cops in America and how we view them, it’s worth stating the obvious: As individuals, there are good teachers and bad teachers, just as there are bad cops and good cops, including some who — just like Kuczka — gave their lives trying to protect others. But when you look at the wider cultures of the two professions, you can see a contrast.

What the United States learned — or at least should have learned — from the senseless tragedy at Uvalde is that the “thin blue line” culture of modern American policing has devolved to the point where the self-protecting preservation of those “blue lives” is the highest value of that career.

It means that preserving order — as police did to the parents at Uvalde who were harassed or even detained because they wanted to rescue their kids when they saw the cops were not — comes before aiding citizens, in a profession that too often views those citizens less as humans and more as the subjects for an army of occupation.

By and large, the police are not acting to protect children. Our teachers are.

There’s no better advice than TV’s late Fred Rogers telling children to “look for the helpers.” Teachers like Jean Kuczka are exactly who Mr. Rogers was talking about, and there are many others like her. Let’s be real: Being a school teacher in America in the 21st century often requires getting as much education as lawyers, engineers and tech gurus — who get paid a lot more. The people who do teach ultimately stay in the profession for the reason that Kuczka touted in her bio: because every kid “deserves an opportunity to learn.”

And yet it’s no secret American society venerates not teachers and education but the cop lifestyle and ethos, as seen on “thin blue line” flags and the web of laws that make law enforcement officers a privileged and protected class in this country. Our teachers, in fact, are too often vilified.

In the 2022 midterm election, candidates from both parties are tripping over each other not only to voice their moral support for the police, but also vowing to spend more money and hire more cops. I have to wonder, would 576 officers at Uvalde have acted any differently from the 376 who were there?

Many of these same candidates begging for endorsements from police unions have treated teachers unions as political punching bags, even though the core demand from those unions is often not more salary for themselves — though most deserve that — but more resources for teaching our kids. No wonder that America is facing an already alarming, and growing, teacher shortage, with too many good educators leaving the profession and too few of our best young people eager to enter it. A world where more classroom time is spent on active-shooter drills, even as parents and politicians respect teachers less, isn’t especially enticing. This seems like a good moment to look inside ourselves, and question our values as a nation that holds warriors in higher regard than the helpers.

We live in a time of growing resentment and grievance toward the educated — a complicated thing that I just wrote an entire book about — and our schoolteachers are increasingly caught up in it. The pandemic managed to pour fuel on that fire, even though most teachers were just struggling to figure out the best way to keep their classrooms free of disease.

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