Family of Murdered Massachusetts High School Teacher Sues for Wrongful Death

Roughly three years ago, Danvers High School teacher Collen Ritzer was raped and murdered by a student. Her family recently filed suit in Essex County Superior Court against the town of Danvers, Massachusetts and the Danvers School Department. The Ritzer family seeks answers to numerous questions related to the horrific events resulting in their daughter’s death in October 2013.

Ritzer was 24 at the time of her death. She was in her second year teaching math at Danvers High School. Her assailant was a new student at the school, recently having moved from Tennessee to Danvers. He was a student in Ritzer’s freshman math class.

Ritzer was found dead and half-naked in the woods behind Danvers High School on the day after she did not come home from work. Defendant Philip Chism is currently serving a 40-year sentence for the rape, robbery, and murder of Colleen. Chism awaits trial in a similar although not fatal attack on a staff member at the Department of Youth Services, where he was being held before trial.

Chism, who was 14 at the time of the incident, is thought to have murdered Ritzer in a school bathroom at around 3 PM and then dragged her body to the woods behind the school. On the afternoon of the incident, Chism stayed after class for “help block,” a period in which teachers were made available to assist their students. The school had recently undergone a major renovation that included a security camera system. These cameras captured the final few moments of Ritzer’s life as she was talking to a colleague.

Shortly before 3 p.m. that afternoon, Colleen walked to the restroom. Minutes later, Chism pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and followed her inside, where he raped and killed her. The complaint describes the attacks on Colleen in graphic detail.

The Ritzers are seeking compensation for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress. A Danvers High School maintenance worker was allegedly instructed to clean up the blood found in the bathroom, but shockingly the police were not called. Instead, the worker washed potentially valuable evidence down the drain.

Authorities were not made aware of the attack until hours after the incident. In addition to the town and the school district, the maintenance worker, the cleaning company that employed him (SJ Services, Inc.), and the architectural firm (DiNisco Design Partnership) that designed the wing where Ritzer was killed are listed among the defendants. Although many of the activities were reflected on DiNisco-installed cameras, no one was monitoring them. Video footage clearly depicts Chism roaming the school grounds freely and suspiciously for over an hour, and no one stopped and questioned him. In the lawsuit, the Ritzers question how Chism was able to commit the murder without anyone intervening.

Specifically, the family seeks answers to the following:

  1. Why no one was monitoring the purported “state-of-the-art” security system during the time Colleen was murdered and her body dragged across the premises.
  2. Which measures have been implemented to address the school’s security deficiencies.
  3. Which policies the school has established regarding communicating with non-English speaking workers and whether the school has addressed those procedures since the incident.
  4. Why Colleen was alone in that wing that evening.
  5. How Chism was able to travel through the school grounds and adjacent woods covered in blood without anyone noticing.

At trial, an employee of SJ Services testified that the bathroom looked like the scene of a “slaughter.” The Ritzers allege that the delay in making the murder known to the family inflicted additional emotional distress. It is likely that the one count on which Chism was criminally acquitted was affected by the fact that authorities were not provided prompt notice by SJ Services.

The family indicates they will dedicate any money they’re awarded to enhance school safety programs and contribute to Colleen’s legacy through nonprofit organizations. The Ritzers insist that they seek no personal financial benefit from the lawsuit.

Danvers officials could not be reached for comment.

If your loved one has lost their life, you may need the assistance of a wrongful death lawyer to seek compensation. At the Neumann Law Group, our Massachusetts attorneys provide trustworthy legal representation to accident victims all over the state. Contact us toll-free at 800-525-NEUMANN or use our online form to set up a free consultation.

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