Tacoma police and school officials said Friday that they will jointly develop a response plan that would prevent the type of confusion that ensued Wednesday after a fatal school shooting at Foss High School.
Numerous parents expressed frustration after the shooting over the lack of a clear plan to reunite parents and children, miscommunication of where students could be picked up, and release of students before a suspect was captured.
In a meeting Friday, Police Chief Don Ramsdell, schools Superintendent Charlie Milligan and Safe Streets executive director Priscilla Lisicich resolved to create a comprehensive plan on how to respond to school shootings and other major incidents involving Tacoma schools and police.
The “combined operational plan” could address issues ranging from the different walkie-talkie frequencies used by school administrators and police to the setup of a central information center for parents during crises.
Ramsdell and Milligan said in interviews Friday that they were pleased with their agencies’ overall response to the Foss slaying.
But they cited two areas for improvement: communication between police and school officials, and confusion over where parents could get their children after the shooting.
“The whole scenario at that school site was handled really, really well,” Milligan said. “The thing that didn’t work as well was the actual movement of students back to parents.”
Ramsdell said decisions were made in a “chaotic, ever-evolving situation.”
“Our response … is to address the imminent threat and render aid to anyone injured,” the chief said. “You have to make decisions based on the best information you have at the time.”
On Wednesday, 17-year-old Samnang Kok was gunned down in a Foss hallway just minutes before the first school bell rang. School officials immediately locked down the campus, preventing students from leaving or entering the school.
As police searched for the gunman and interviewed students, parents at one point were told students would be bused to Wilson High School and allowed to go home. Though a couple of busloads of teens went to Wilson, they quickly returned to Foss, where all students were eventually released or taken home.
Ramsdell said Friday that he understood police and school staff members decided jointly to send students to Wilson because no one knew where the shooter was.
Once it was determined the gunman no longer was on Foss grounds, school officials decided it would be too overwhelming to release kids from Wilson, the chief said.
Milligan said he did not make the decision to send students to Wilson and was told the police had made the decision.
“I just know when I got involved, I said I didn’t want them to go to Wilson,” Milligan said. “If they had the shooter and the (Foss) campus was clear, there was no reason for them not to be released from Foss.”
Milligan said Foss’ emergency plan calls for students to be evacuated to the school parking lot, and as a second choice, to nearby Cheney Stadium.
The News Tribune has requested a copy of Foss High School’s emergency plan from the school district.
The district’s lawyer is determining whether it will release all or part of the plan, spokeswoman Patti Holmgren said.
The Police Department and the school district each has emergency response plans, but not one on how to work together in such emergencies, Ramsdell and Milligan said.
In Friday’s meeting, the officials discussed how their agencies responded to the shooting and what they could do to improve their handling of future incidents.
Once district and police employees finish reviewing how they responded this time, a planning team from the agencies and Safe Streets, the nonprofit crime-fighting community group, will frame the next steps and seek input from other public and community agencies and also individuals, said Holmgren, who was at the meeting.
The internal reviews could uncover other areas, besides student evacuation, to improve.
For instance, Milligan said, “we have to define the clear lines of communication between the school district and the Police Department.
“When the Police Department shows up on the scene, the Police Department is in charge,” he said. The district needs to know “what responsibilities can we have and how do we assist police in doing their charge.”
Police and the district will each designate a liaison to work with each other on a permanent basis, Holmgren said. Eventually, they’d like to conduct a drill in which students, staff members and law enforcement officers practice what to do if there’s another school shooting.
“I think it’s going to be very powerful working with Safe Streets and the Police Department,” Milligan said. “That ties all the pieces together – the education, law enforcement and community services pieces – to cover all those instances where we need interagency cooperation.”
Foss will continue to have added security next week.
Two school district security officers and four off-duty uniformed Tacoma police officers hired by the district will watch over the school. After next week, the district plans to fund a permanent off-duty uniformed police officer at the school.
Ramsdell said patrol cars will drive by all schools.
“I think the big thing we need to realize is we need to make sure that we have some plan for schools and make sure schools have a plan and know what they are,” he said. “We will be working with the school district and furthering the safety of students and faculty.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694