Updated 05/30/14 – 11:10 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — A special education teacher was killed Thursday evening when she was struck by a stray bullet while visiting a real estate office in the Chatham neighborhood.
Dr. Betty Howard, 58, taught at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep Academy High School in the Roseland neighborhood, where students and staff were remembering her as a life-changing educator.
Howard grew up in the Englewood neighborhood, and taught for seven years at Brooks, where she headed the special education department.
Chicago Police Officer Orlando Long said his sister “just was a very happy person; was always smiling, and always laughing, and just full of joy.”
Police said Howard was standing inside a real estate office near 79th Street and Evans Avenue around 5:30 p.m. Thursday, when bullets pierced the wall of the building, and struck Howard and two other people.
Howard, a resident of west suburban Broadview, was struck in the head, and was pronounced dead less than an hour later at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The other two victims suffered graze wounds and were treated at the scene.
Long said, although he deals with the impact of gun violence on a regular basis on the job, it’s different now.
“It’s hard when it hits home. You know, I deal with the families on the scene, trying to console them, and us being first responders, trying to have thick skin and not show emotions, but it’s to the point now when it hits home,” he said. It’s unfortunate, and at this point in time you’ve just got to release, because of the pain and hurt that comes along with losing one of your loved ones.”
Howard’s students were looking forward to sitting in on her seminar on Friday before they learned she had been killed.
“It’s really complicated. I would have saw her, and just to see her talk and smile, it really would brighten your day,” freshman Avionce Johnson said. “Last night, when I saw that, I kind of broke down a little bit. It was really sad.”
Sophomore Isaac Simmons said he didn’t know Howard, but his friends who were in her class could feel the concern she had for them.
“I know a couple of kids that actually went to her for help, and it seemed like she was always trying to help out and do the best for kids,” he said. “The violence is out of control. … It’s so much violence, you really don’t know what to do. I mean, I’ve just got to hope and pray that something like that doesn’t happen to me.”
Brooks principal D’Andre Weaver said it was an “indescribably difficult day” for the school, after learning of Howard’s death.
“Our entire staff, students, and parents are deeply saddened by the unexpected, untimely, and unwarranted loss of our friend, teacher, and colleague,” he said. “Dr. Howard has been a member of our family for many years. Her love for all children, but particularly children with diverse learning needs, was second to none.”
Weaver said Howard’s concern for students will live on through her students and colleagues.
“This tragedy reiterates the importance of high quality education and the opportunity for social mobility for all children in the City of Chicago,” Weaver said. “As educators, we believe this is the only true way to combat generational poverty, rampant crime, and the sense of helplessness felt by many people in our minority-dominated communities.”
Detectives believe the shooting was gang-related, and neither Howard nor the other two victims were the intended target. No one was in custody for the shooting as of early Friday morning.
Community activist Andrew Holmes said the actual targets need to tell police what happened to help find the killer.
“We hit the grounds this morning, going door-to-door. This was an innocent victim, which we all know; a Chicago police officer’s sister,” Holmes said. “At the same time, the target … individuals that was targeted need to open their mouths.”
He said he will continue going door-to-door in Chatham in hopes of getting tips about who fired the shots.