Back to class, with tears and officers

January 5, 2007 

Classes resumed Thursday at Foss High School in Tacoma, but students said it was anything but a normal school day.

The day after a 17-year-old student was fatally gunned down in a Foss hallway, police and security officers abounded on campus, teens made sympathy cards, and grieving students and staff sought the help of crisis counselors.

Some students and parents placed flowers and balloons near the school’s front steps to honor shooting victim Samnang Kok, a Foss junior.

“People were sad,” 10th-grader Tyler Trippel said after school. “It wasn’t as alive as it usually is.”

The Tacoma School District and Tacoma police boosted efforts to try to make the day run as smoothly as possible. Sixteen crisis counselors were on hand to talk with students and staff, district spokeswoman Patti Holmgren said.

Foss, which normally has at least three district-employed security and patrol officers, had six on Thursday. Three Tacoma police officers were also on campus, along with extra officers in patrol cars when school started and ended.

Crisis counselors and extra district security and Tacoma police officers were also slated to be at Foss today.

“Cops were everywhere,” Dontese Cottrell, 14, said. “They had cops in the lunchroom. Some were checking in the classrooms.”

He said it made him feel a bit safer. “No one had a gun today,” he said.

Still, preliminary attendance records showed that about 30 percent – 528 of Foss’s 1,742 students – were absent Thursday. Attendance at other Tacoma high schools was normal, though Mount Tahoma had slightly more absences than usual.

Students expressed a variety of emotions, starting with shock and sadness.

Freshman Sounita Sophorn, 15, felt sad, unsafe and “pretty much scared” after Wednesday’s shooting.

“I’m willing to switch schools if I have to to be safe,” she said.

Students said teachers in each of their classes talked about the shooting and encouraged students to talk to counselors if they needed help.

“Teachers were trying to keep us happy,” said Dion Williams, 15, a freshman.

Many wondered what could have prompted someone to shoot to death Kok, a student known for his friendliness. Neth Sngoun, 17, a senior, said he knew both Kok and the student, Douglas S. Chanthabouly, accused of killing him.

“He was a close friend to a lot of people,” he said of Kok, whom he had known from their days at Jason Lee Middle School. “Everyone was wondering what happened.”

Of Chanthabouly, he said: “He was nice to everybody. He was really laid back.”

School started at 10 a.m., about 21/2 hours late, to give staff time to meet as a group and talk individually with grief counselors if they wished, Holmgren said.

Staff were still grappling with the emotional impact of losing a student to violence in a school corridor.

At least two staff members had performed CPR on the youth, who died at the scene. Students said some instructors broke into tears during discussions of Wednesday’s events.

“It is a very caring staff,” said Principal Don Herbert. “We’ve got a lot of healing to do.”

He includes himself in that assessment. He was nearby when Kok was shot, so close that he could see the muzzle flashes.

“I’m not healthy. I watched the person die. Then I had to inform the parents.”

“I really firmly believe there’s nothing we could have done in this case. ... It wasn’t a lack of supervision. It (happened) in an isolated hallway but there were several adults there.”

Tips Hot line

The Tacoma School District has started a hot line to receive tips about students bringing weapons to school, or other information about possibly violent incidents. Tipsters can leave a message at the violence prevention hot line: 253-571-1155. School officials say they got a handful of messages Thursday on the hot line’s first day.

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