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School remembers slain Vermont teacher

Students looked over luminaries in memory of teacher Melissa Jenkins on Tuesday at St. Johnsbury Academy in St. Johnsbury, Vt.

Toby Talbot/AP

Students looked over luminaries in memory of teacher Melissa Jenkins on Tuesday at St. Johnsbury Academy in St. Johnsbury, Vt.

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. — The Vermont prep school teacher who authorities say was murdered was remembered Tuesday on the campus of her school as someone everyone loved.

Tom Lovett, the headmaster of St. Johnsbury Academy, said that when Melissa Jenkins came to the school in 2004, she taught science and had a gift for reaching out to students who were reluctant to embrace the subject. She was completing a master’s program at Lyndon State College of Vermont and was set to complete the degree this spring.

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Lovett said he met with the 33-year-old Jenkins Thursday to discuss the year, and he told her that she was doing an excellent job in the classroom. She responded, “I love those the most who need it the most.”

He described her as a popular, energetic presence on a campus with more than 900 students. She had also been a dorm proctor at the school and had coached basketball.

The school cancelled classes Tuesday, and had counselors on hand for students. In front of the school, students wrote messages on lunch bags and the school planned to light them in her honor at dusk tonight.

Many students wrote letters to Jenkins’ son, Ty, telling him what a great mother he had.

Lovett said, “She was just positive energy, one of those people who everyone loved.”

He recalled a time when Jenkins helped a new student from China who had showed up late for orientation. He said Jenkins gave the student a personal tour of campus to make him feel at home.

Beth Choiniere, a colleague at the school, said she was a passionate and dedicated teacher who was, “absolutely full of life.” She said Jenkins was often on campus with her son and was a devoted mother.

“He was the light of her life,” she said.

A couple of the messages on the lunch bags included, “thank you for the courage I’m not sure you know you gave me.” Another said, “if only tears could bring you back.” A third said, “You touched so many lives and will stay in them.”

At the family’s home, Jenkins’s uncle declined to comment.

At The Creamery, a restaurant where Jenkins had waitressed for twelve years, the mood was somber.

“You can’t imagine what it’s done to this town,” said the owner Marion Beattie Cairns.

She said Jenkins worked Saturday night and left a little early when her babysitter texted her that Ty was acting up.

As customers and friends came to visit Cairns, she asked one, “What’s going to happen to Ty? He’s a beautiful little boy.”

A medical examiner ruled Tuesday that a body found along an isolated stretch of road belonged to Jenkins, whose toddler was found alone in her idling SUV over the weekend. The death has been determined to be a homicide.

Her exact cause of death was not released so as not to inhibit the investigation, authorities said. Police did not say whether they had a suspect in their sights, and detectives returned Tuesday to the area where the body was found to collect more evidence.

“We are deeply saddened by the tragic death of Ms. Jenkins, and our thoughts are with her family and friends,” said the lead investigator, State Police Major Ed Ledo. “We remain committed to solving this case and to identify and bring to justice the person or persons responsible for the death of Ms. Jenkins.”

Violent crime is rare in picturesque northeastern Vermont but not unknown.

In September 2010, Pat O’Hagan, a 78-year-old grandmother, disappeared from her home in Sheffield, about 20 miles north of St. Johnsbury. Her body was found almost a month later about 10 miles from her home in Wheelock.

Police have ruled the death a homicide, but no arrests have been made. Authorities have not said whether they believe Jenkins’s case is connected.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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