Tacoma police and school officials released Foss High School students from a school-shooting lockdown at least 30 minutes before a suspected killer was captured Wednesday morning.
A manhunt was in progress as students streamed across South 19th Street into the Fred Meyer parking lot or headed off campus into neighborhoods.
The suspect, 18-year-old Foss student Douglas S. Chanthabouly, was armed with a handgun when he was arrested about a block from school. He is suspected of killing 17-year-old Samnang Kok in a school hallway shortly before classes were to begin for the day.
“We had police everywhere on the grounds and in the area,” Tacoma police spokesman Mark Fulghum said Wednesday evening. “I don’t know whether we could have kept them locked down any longer. The whole situation was stressful already.”
No one else was hurt, but the police and school district response raised questions among parents about whether the situation could have been handled better and students kept more safe.
Many complained there seemed to be no clear plan on how and when to release possibly traumatized students, or how to notify parents where to pick up their sons and daughters.
“Nobody knows where my son is. Nobody can tell me where he is or if he was injured,” a frustrated Brian Harris said about 90 minutes after the 7:30 a.m. shooting.
He was among dozens of parents standing in the Fred Meyer parking lot across from Foss waiting to be reunited with their children. Many huddled around car radios, listening for news.
By day’s end, both police and school officials acknowledged there would be lessons learned.
“There was some confusion on releasing students to their parents,” Superintendent Charlie Milligan said in a recorded message to be telephoned to all district parents. “We are fully reviewing our evacuation protocols as well as our communication link with the Tacoma Police Department.”
Both Fulghum and schools spokeswoman Leanna Albrecht said they believed release of the students around 9 a.m. was prudent, even though the suspect wasn’t arrested until 9:30.
Three teams of trained officers swept the school before the decision was made to release students, Fulghum said.
“They had already gone through the school and determined that the suspect was no longer in the school or on school grounds, so at that point, they decided it was safe to release the kids.” he added.
Lifting the lockdown was a joint decision of police and school officials, said Albrecht.
“Police determined the suspect was not on campus,” Albrecht added. “They had a strong lead on the suspect and felt it was an isolated incident.”
Milligan, who’d been on campus since about 7:45 a.m., told students gathered in the auditorium that they could leave by their usual means of transportation.
When Harris, a Sheraton Tacoma Hotel chef, rushed to Foss on Wednesday morning in search of his 18-year-old son, Kaleb, officers sent him across town to Wilson High. He was told kids would be bused there, away from the shooting scene, before they were released.
But when Harris got to Wilson, officials there sent him back to Foss.
“If you ask me, they should have set up a command post, blocked out the parking lot and corralled the kids,” Harris said.
Parent Diane Richards thought the kids “probably should have been locked down longer” while the suspect was located and captured, but she also had mixed emotions on the subject.
“As parents waiting anxiously in the (Fred Meyer) parking lot, we all just wanted to see our kids,” she said.
Getting students back in their parents’ arms was challenging in part because a crime was being investigated, police and school officials said.
Detectives initially thought interviewing students would take hours. Police settled on a plan: Bus students who’d been interviewed to Wilson and let them go home from there. As interview times shortened and the crime scene narrowed, the buses were recalled to Foss.
“Not being through something like this before, we’re going to learn from this,” said police detective Chris Taylor.
School officials did a good job of handling the primary situation, parent Carmen Carter said.
“They got everybody inside the gym and made sure they were safe and stuff,” said her son, Keith, a 14-year-old ninth-grader.
Even so, Carmen Carter wasn’t satisfied with the miscommunication that sent parents looking for their children.
“It just made the parents panic even more,” she said.
School officials later said the situation was changing so fast, they counted on the media to dispense information until they could issue e-mail and other alerts.
Parent Peggy Thomas wasn’t happy as she stood in the Fred Meyer fuel station parking lot leaking tears and looking for her daughter, Rachel, nearly three hours after the shooting.
“She’s 14, and she’s probably scared out of her mind,” Thomas said.
Unlike many students who called their parents or sent text messages, Rachel couldn’t contact her mom.
“She doesn’t have a cell phone yet,” Harris said. “She was going to get one on Friday.”
Unbeknown to Harris, Rachel sat on a curb across South 19th Street for more than an hour, wondering how to find her family.
A few minutes later mother and daughter were reunited.
Harris cried as she hugged Rachel tight.
“They were giving us the runaround,” Rachel said. “They wouldn’t let us go anywhere.”
“It’s not your fault,” her mother replied. “It’s never your fault.”