'She was kindhearted. She was sweet. She always made you laugh even when you weren’t trying to laugh.'
Trigger Warning: This article contains instances of gun violence that some readers may find disturbing.
In a tragic school shooting, a 19-year-old wielded an AR-15-style rifle and shot at students from Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis-based Jean Kuczka, a mother of five children and grandmother of six, tragically lost her life on Monday when the shooter barged into her classroom and started shooting. A friend's granddaughter who was present in Jean's classroom during the shooting shared that Jean was protecting her students and assisting them in escaping through a window when she was killed.
Jean Kuczka was an amazing educator. She loved her students and helped them make a difference in the school and community. This is a huge loss. I always loved seeing her at the school. https://t.co/kohtIYnftQ— Glenn Barnes (@SocratesAsksWhy) October 24, 2022
"One student turned to me and said, 'They shot Ms. Kuczka,' as parents scrambled to get the kids out of the school," Kristie Faulstich told CNN while describing how Jean stood between the shooter and the students. Alexis Allen-Brown said she was not shocked to learn that one of her favorite high school teachers died while attempting to save her students. “When I found out, the first thing I could think about was … that’s how much she cared about the students,” Allen-Brown said. “She was going to save those babies.”
Abbey Kuczka, Jean's 27-year-old daughter, tells PEOPLE that the 61-year-old loved her family and her students. She was a devoted and loving educator who would go above and beyond for her students. "My mom gave respect to everyone, and I think that's what made her stand out because she respected every single student she had and students felt that, so they also respected her," Abbey shared.
This is Jean Kuczka.— Goodable (@Goodable) October 25, 2022
It barely made headlines, but yesterday a gunman stormed into her classroom in St. Louis. Without hesitating, she stood between him and her students.
She gave her own life — to save everyone else.
Know her name. pic.twitter.com/SO5kgKPLXo
Allen-Brown agrees, adding, “She was kindhearted. She was sweet. She always made you laugh even when you weren’t trying to laugh,” she said. “She made you feel real, inside the class and out. She made you feel human. And she was just so sweet.”
Abbey was also aware of the close relationships Jean had developed over the course of her long career as a teacher with her staff and students. Prior to the start of each new school year, Abbey would assist her mother in decorating her classroom. "If we would see her former students or I would go up to her school, they would just go on and on about how much they loved my mom. The vibe I got from her classroom was that it's a safe environment that people can feel comfortable in," Abbey said.
Abbey is thankful for the trips she used to take with her mother. They didn't know it at the time, but this past Sunday was their last trip together, visiting Tower Rock on the Mississippi River. "We ended up sitting in traffic for two hours, and it's crazy down there because no one is directing traffic, but it was like a Godsend, like God said, 'You need this time to sit in traffic with your mom,'" Abbey said.
We are heartbroken at the tragic loss of Jean Kuczka today. Our thoughts are with her family and our entire T1D community. https://t.co/3ODYyz4qbA— JDRF Kansas & Missouri Chapter (@jdrfksmo) October 25, 2022
In addition to her students and her family, Jean had many other interests throughout her life of 61 years. After one of her sons was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 10, she took part in JDRF's Ride to Cure Diabetes every year to raise money for research into a cure. Jean planned to travel to Amelia Island in December to take part in the bike ride after raising money for it during a trivia night in September.
According to Abbey, Jean's children inherited Abbey's passion for sports. The Kuczka family took yearly vacations together, and the devoted mother had close relationships with each of her kids. The family always travels to Pompano Beach, Florida over Christmas to spend a few days escaping the bitter Missouri winter. Abbey explains, "That was one of my mom's favorite places to go."
Any donations made in Jean's honor should be sent to the JDRF Ride to Cure Diabetes page, per the Kuczka family's requests to well-wishers.