ST. LOUIS — Music teacher Rachel Phillippe’s class was full of students. The sounds of pianos, guitars and drums filled the room. A metronome click, click, clicked. It was early Monday morning at the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience.
Then the assistant principal came over the intercom: Something about an altercation in the hallway.
And that was strange, Phillipe thought, at Collegiate, a magnet school where kids have to apply and test in. Fights are rare.
Phillippe walked to the room’s double doors, stepped outside and turned to lock them.
That’s when she heard the screams.
• • •
Kacy Seals-Shahid had woken up early Monday. The principal of Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, which shares a campus with Collegiate at South Kingshighway and Arsenal Street, made a 5:45 a.m. workout, gave her husband his birthday card, and still arrived at school before the buses.
Keisha Acres was there. Her daughter, sophomore Alexzandria Bell, had forgotten her glasses. Acres gave them to Shahid.
Shahid caught Alexzandria as she got off the bus. How, asked Shahid, are you planning on seeing today? Alexzandria was confused. Shahid handed her the glasses.
Alexzandria had been working hard this year. Shahid told her that the school’s dance teacher had remarked how much the 15-year-old was improving. Alex had the biggest smile as she walked away.
The bell rang. Students headed to class. By 9 a.m., Shahid was in her office, scrolling through email.
A teacher came by. Something was going on in the building, she told Shahid.
The teacher was acting weird. Slightly frantic. She said a part of the school’s intruder code-phrase, used to put the campus on lockdown.
“Who said?” Shahid asked.
Officer Yancy, the teacher replied.
Shahid went to the intercom, and used the whole code:
“Miles Davis is in the building,” she announced.
Then she walked out to the hallway, looked right, and saw him:
Clad in all black, a mask covering everything but his eyes. And in his hand, a long rifle, barrel stretching toward the ceiling. She stepped back and locked the door. And she got down to wait.
• • •
The gunman came in through a side door equipped for war: military-style long gun, high-capacity magazines, and 600 rounds of ammunition. Some of it was strapped to his chest. A field bag carried more.
Nineteen-year-old Orlando Harris knew the building: He’d graduated from Central in May.
His family had grown concerned about his mental state in recent weeks. They’d contacted police and asked them to take his gun. Officers said the law wouldn’t let them, so it went to a family friend instead.
Somehow, though, he’d gotten it back, and made clear what he intended to do with it. “I don’t have any friends, I don’t have any family, I’ve never had a girlfriend,” read a page from a notebook police found in his car after the shooting. “This was the perfect storm for a mass shooter.”
• • •
School security officer Germaine Yancy was sitting at his post, a table on the first floor, talking on the phone.
Then he heard what sounded like a car hitting the side of the building.
He stood up and looked at the door down the hallway. At first, he noticed the shattered glass.
Then the man in black opened the door.
“Hey! Hey! Hey!” Yancy shouted.
The gunman aimed and fired. Yancy turned and ran, sticking to the wall as he learned in the military.
“Southwest one dispatch,” he shouted into his radio, his only weapon. “Be advised, I got an active shooter in the building.”
“I’ve been shot at,” he continued. “I have not been hit. I say again, I have not been hit.”
He turned the corner, out of the shooter’s sight.
• • •
Collegiate Principal Frederick Steele came running. “Lock all the doors,” Yancy told him.
A dozen, maybe 15 bangs rang out down the hallway.
Alexzandria came running toward them, screaming, blood gushing from her arm.
Yancy told Steele to take care of Alex, and took off running, yelling at the top of his lungs: “We’ve got an active shooter in the building!”
Yancy got through a door, across the courtyard, up several flights of stairs, and then ran into Manfret McGhee, dean of arts at Central, and Perry Anselman, the assistant principal there.
Then the shooter reappeared.
Three bangs rang out and bullets flew past.
Somehow, McGhee recognized the gunman. “That’s Orlando Harris,” he told Yancy and Anselman.
Yancy grabbed Anselman by the arm. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.
• • •
Central sophomore Charlie Haegele, 16, was in AP World History talking about how to solve homelessness when Shahid came over the intercom.
The class hushed. The teacher locked the door. Someone turned out the lights. The students all moved along the wall, out of sight, as they’d been trained.
One started playing a video game on his phone.
Then they heard gunshots.
A friend started shaking. A student began to sob. The teacher, a military veteran, looked like she might cry, too.
Charlie texted his family:
“there’s a shooter in school rn
“like actually i hear the gunshots
“uhhh. love yall lol. we’ll probably be fine”
“What!?!” his mom responded. “Omg Charlie keep messaging me.”
• • •
Downstairs on the first floor, Principal Steele was still with Alexzandria.
He’d coaxed her into sitting down and leaning against the wall. He didn’t want her to lie down and pass out.
He told her it was going to be OK.
They waited there for four, maybe five minutes. Then police officers appeared at the glass door at the end of the hallway.
Steele got up to let them in. He hoped he’d see an ambulance behind them, but he didn’t.
Down the hallway, he watched Alexzandria gently lie on her side.
• • •
Principal Shahid had called her daughter, her husband and taken off her shoes in a small room off of her second-floor office.
Videos of the community reacting to a school shooting at the Central Visual and Performing Arts high school in St. Louis, on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022.
As she heard the shots, her sister-in-law’s name showed up on her Apple watch. She picked up the call. Her sister had a pastor on the line.
They started praying.
“I will not die and my students will not die,” she said out loud.
• • •
Phillippe and her class were huddled in an office in the music room.
She told the kids texting their parents and siblings to make sure their phones were on silent. She texted her own family and fiancé, a long-haul truck driver three days away, her hands shaking. “Pray for us,” she wrote.
Her focus grew with her fear. She kept everyone in place when the fire alarm started going off. She figured they could make it outside if they saw smoke or fire.
Somebody banged on the door, and jerked at the handle. The class stayed put.
Somebody banged on the door again.
Then the intercom sounded again: Police were trying to clear the building.
She could hear them coming: First their sirens, then their boots on the ground, then their radios. Finally.
She got up and went to the door. Another knock: “Police! Please open up.”
She opened the door partway and saw the officer with his gun drawn. She put her hands in the air and told him she had kids in the room. He said everyone should follow him.
It was a short trip outside. Up a ramp, left turn, 10 more steps and then the door.
They passed Alexzandria at the turn, and the kids began to lose it.
One vomited. But they kept running, hands up.
“You can do this,” the officer told them.
• • •
Soon there were hundreds of kids, filing out of the building, pouring down the side streets and making their way to the Schnucks grocery store parking lot on Arsenal Street, where parents were gathering. Dads and moms ran to hug their children.
Acres, Alex’s mom, was there, too. And she was starting to worry.
Her daughter’s phone was going to voicemail. She had tracked the phone’s location and it was still inside the school. She’d given photos to police officers, but hadn’t heard anything.
She paced the lot, taking calls. Her eyes had tears in them and her voice was wavering.
A student told her others in third-period dance had gotten out safe. Maybe, the student said, she was at Gateway STEM High School, where the district was taking some students to be picked up.
An officer tried to offer some hope, too. A lot of students dropped their phones and ran out, he said. He was about to head to the hospital, and would get a list of names when he got there. He’d call her as soon as he knew something. “We’re going to think positive,” he said.
• • •
The Rev. Rodrick Burton pulled up to campus around noon.
Police pointed him toward Acres and her family, by that time standing across the street from the school. Police told Burton to keep Acres company.
Burton went over and asked family members what they needed. A seat, they said.
He got them a bench, then some tissues, then more seating as more family members arrived. He prayed with them, for God’s mercy, and for strength.
Acres was mostly quiet. All Alexzandria wanted to do was dance, she told him.
After about 45 minutes, police called for Acres to come back to the school. Burton said another prayer with her, and she walked across the street.
• • •
Shahid was waiting in the hallway with school district officials and police.
They walked toward Acres.
Wait a minute, Shahid recalled Acres saying. This doesn’t look good, Acres said. Why are all you all coming to me? This doesn’t look good, she said again.
Dr. Shahid, look me in my eye and tell me what has happened, Acres said.
Nobody said a word.
Shahid looked down.
And Acres began to scream.
• • •
Steele, the Collegiate principal, spent the rest of his morning opening doors. He had the keys to unlock each classroom, and police needed to know all of them were clear.
He did not mind. He didn’t want to go out to the parking lot because his pants were still covered in blood.
When he finished, his wife brought him a fresh pair. He put them on, got in his car, and started driving. He went around the football field and saw the press conference with the mayor, the police chief, the superintendent, the congresswoman.
He stopped, got out of his car, and walked over to listen.
• • •
Police had found Harris barricaded inside a third-floor room and killed him in a shootout. Harris had killed two, Alexzandria and physical education teacher Jean Kuczka, 61, a mother of five, grandmother of six and a national championship field-hockey player. Four other students were shot.
Outside the school’s broken door, police found Harris’ car, a blue Dodge Avenger. Inside the car, they found his notebook. And in his notebook, Harris described his ambitions: He wanted to be the deadliest school shooter in U.S. history. He had a list of names of people he wanted to kill. He was counting down the days at least three weeks before the shooting.
He wrote that he knew he had mental health issues, but felt none of the medical professionals he worked with had taken him seriously.
• • •
Charlie, the sophomore, ran into the arms of his mother in the Schnucks parking lot and then went to Mission Taco to process the day’s events.
Yancy, the security guard, helped students evacuate, then identified the suspect and helped police download security footage.
Once all the kids had found their parents, Phillippe started walking home. Her car keys were in her purse, and her purse was inside a crime scene. She took off her school badge. She wanted to be anonymous.
Shahid spoke at press conferences, fielded calls and consoled loved ones.
On Wednesday, she went to the funeral home and watched Acres pick out a casket.
Dana Rieck of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this story.
Katie Kull covers public safety for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She previously wrote about local government for the Springfield News-Leader. In her spare time, you can find her cooking, riding horses or spending time outdoors.
Central Visual and Performing Arts high school, where a teacher and student were shot and killed last month, will reopen in January.
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People race across Kingshighway at Arsenal Street after a shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School and the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, in the Southwest Garden neighborhood.
St. Louis Public Schools Director of Security DeAndre Davis fights back tears as school security captain Misty Dobynes holds hands with Central Visual and Performing Arts High School Principal Kacy Seals-Shahid during a press conference about Monday's school shooting on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, at the school district headquarters.
St. Louis police officers work the scene outside Central Visual and Performing Arts High School and the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience following a school shooting on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, in the Southwest Garden neighborhood.