Jean Kuczka and Alexzandria Bell were on the brink of celebrating exciting milestones in their lives.
Alexzandria, 15, was looking forward to traveling to Los Angeles to celebrate her Sweet 16, her father said. And Kuczka, 61, was getting ready to retire after a long, illustrious career teaching, her daughter recounted.
But a shooting rampage Monday at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis destroyed those dreams and shattered the victims’ families. It was at least the 67th shooting this year on US school grounds, with a 19-year-old wielding an AR-15-style rifle, over 600 rounds of ammunition and more than a dozen high-capacity magazines, police have said; he died after a gun battle with officers.
“My daughter was planning on coming out here to California and celebrate her birthday with me on November 18,” Alexzandria’s father, Andre Bell, told CNN affiliate KSDK.
“But now we have to plan her funeral.”
A teacher shielded students from the gunman
Kuczka died protecting her students, a colleague said.
During the rush to evacuate children from the school, “One student looked at me and she said, ‘They shot Ms. Kuczka.’ And then she said that Ms. Kuczka had put herself between the gunman and the students,” Kristie Faulstich recalled.
Alexis Allen-Brown wasn’t surprised to learn one of her favorite high school teachers died trying to save her students, she said.
“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.”
Kuczka often used inspirational quotes she believed in, such as, “Before you are anything else, you are a human. And every human deserves respect,” Faulstich recalled.
Kuczka had worked at Central VPA High School since 2008, according to her biography on the school’s website. On it, she wrote, “I believe that every child is a unique human being and deserves a chance to learn.”
Kuczka succeeding in making a lasting impact on her students, said Allen-Brown, now in her 20s.
“She was kindhearted. She was sweet. She always made you laugh even when you wasn’t trying to laugh,” Allen-Brown said.
“She made you feel real, inside the class and out. She made you feel human. And she was just so sweet.”
A talented dancer who ‘kept everybody laughing’
Alexzandria was a member the Saint Louis Dazzling Diamonds dance group. Her fellow dancers created a poster with Alexzandria’s image that is now part of a growing memorial in front of the school.
Her friend Dejah Robinson said the two were planning to celebrate Halloween together this weekend.
“She was always funny and always kept the smile on her face and kept everybody laughing,” Robinson said, fighting back tears.
Robinson, who attends another school, wants lawmakers to act on gun control, she said.
“They been knowing what’s happening, and they could have been did something,” she said. “But clearly they ain’t doing nothing, and they won’t.”
Alexandria’s dad said his daughter could make any day better.
“Alexzandria was my everything. She was joyful, wonderful and just a great person,” Bell told KSDK.
“She was the girl I loved to see and loved to hear from. No matter how I felt, I could always talk to her, and it was alright. That was my baby.”
But in his greatest time of need, Alexzandria can’t comfort her father.
He’s left agonizing over why someone took his daughter’s life.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said. “I am so upset. I need somebody – police, community folks, somebody – to make this make sense.”
Correction: A photo caption in this story previously misspelled Alexzandria Bell's first name.
CNN’s Amanda Jackson and Paul P. Murphy contributed to this report.