School resource officers patrol Tacoma high schools
It was typical teen talk. The kind of casual banter you hear in any high school, especially on the first day back after winter break.
Students at Tacoma’s Foss High School were catching up with friends, making their way through the hallways that January morning in 2007.
“What’s up?” one boy called to another, just before the first bell was to ring.
Then, according to witness accounts, the questioner raised his hand, revealing a handgun. He aimed the gun at the student he’d been talking to, and fired at close range.
Samnang Kok, 17, fell to the floor.
“Boom,” said the shooter, later identified as 18-year-old Douglas Chanthabouly. He fired two more shots into Kok’s body, waved the gun at witnesses and ran away.
The crime sent shock waves throughout the city, the school and the school district.
They continue to ripple a decade later in the form of improved emergency plans, upgraded security measures and police officers patrolling the city’s five comprehensive high schools.
Unchanged for many students, alumni, teachers and administrators is what’s long been known as “the Foss family.”
‘Shots fired. Student down’
Assistant Principal Bryon Bahr didn’t see the shooting that morning. But he heard it. He hurried to investigate what he thought might be students lighting firecrackers left over from New Year’s celebrations.
But when Bahr reached the school’s 300 corridor, he saw the bleeding boy on the floor.
He and other staff members rushed to the fallen student. The school nurse and others administered heart compressions. Bahr tried to breathe life back into the teen via mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
“When something like that happens, you just kind of react,” Bahr recalled.
Principal Don Herbert radioed other school administrators: “Shots fired. Student down. Call 911 and go into lockdown.”
When police arrived minutes later, students were running from the building, shouting in panic about gunfire.
At first, no one knew where the shooter had gone, or if he had acted alone. Kids waited nervously behind closed classroom doors; teachers stood sentry in the hallway.
Eventually, many students were shepherded into the gym as teams of police officers swept the school, looking for the gunman.
Police caught Chanthabouly two hours after the shooting. He was carrying a handgun and walking along South Tyler Street not far from Foss.
Asked why he shot Kok, he answered, “I can’t tell you why. I don’t want it in the news.”
It fell to the school principal to notify Kok’s parents that their son was dead.
“I don’t think any amount of training or experience can ever prepare you to knock on a door and tell a family that their son has been killed under your supervision,” Herbert later testified at Chanthabouly’s trial.
In 2009, a jury convicted Chanthabouly of second-degree murder and a judge sentenced him to more than 23 years in prison. Before committing the murder, Chanthabouly had no criminal record.
He’s currently at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Days in school and in court
Bahr remembers everyone returning to Foss the next day — by order of then-superintendent Charlie Milligan over the objections of some teachers who said the school needed time to heal.
Instead, the blood was quickly washed away, and a locker door with a bullet hole in it replaced.
“I remember it being very quiet for a week or so,” Bahr said.
He said he dealt with the personal emotional effects of the shooting in two ways: discussing them with his wife, also an educator, and by relying on his faith in God.
He said the incident made him feel as if he had failed in his duty to keep kids safe. He became more vigilant.
“Every single day after that, I became the first one in the building, and the last to leave,” said Bahr, now superintendent in the Rainier School District in Thurston County. “Every day I walked in in the morning to make sure it was safe. I still do that to this day.”
He still thinks about that morning 10 years ago.
“It affected so many people: teachers, students, the families of the victim and the shooter,” he said. “There were so many people it touched.”
Kok’s family — his parents, his siblings and his then toddler son — bore the heaviest burden.
The one family member who could be reached — one of Kok’s brothers — declined to be interviewed for this story, saying the pain was still too great for the entire family.
Chanthabouly, as it turned out, had a history of serious mental health problems, including paranoid schizophrenia and more than one suicide attempt.
The Kok family later sued the school district, contending school officials should have known that, based on his history, Chanthabouly was dangerous.
The suit, and a subsequent appeal, were dismissed, with appeals judges saying Chanthabouly’s medical history contained no evidence he was violent.
At Chanthabouly’s criminal trial, his lawyers argued for acquittal, saying he was insane at the time of the shooting and should be sent to Western State Hospital.
Chanthabouly told the mental health experts who examined him that he heard threatening voices and saw “images of people with knives.”
His lawyers said he’d been delusional, mistakenly imagining that Kok was a gang member out to get him. There was no evidence that Kok or Chanthabouly were involved in gangs.
Police, school district relations
The shooting had a direct impact on police-school district relations. Accounts of friction shortly after the shooting surfaced weeks later.
In the immediate aftermath, some parents complained that students were released from school while the hunt for the shooter was still in progress. Others worried that there seemed to be no clear plan to reunite parents with their frightened kids.
Some parents were told their students were being bused to Wilson High School. But officials there sent them back to Foss.
Milligan was criticized for countermanding a police decision to send students to Wilson — a decision he later argued was made by others. Nonetheless, the criticism was cited by his detractors when the School Board gave Milligan the boot in June 2007.
It affected so many people: teachers, students, the families of the victim and the shooter.
Bryon Bahr, former Foss assistant principal
The complaints prompted promises to close communications gaps, institute more detailed emergency plans and upgrade school security. The changes have taken time.
But Tacoma Public Schools now has a districtwide emergency plan, which includes district points of contact for law enforcement, said district spokesman Dan Voelpel.
It starts with the district’s security chief, then branches out to include Superintendent Carla Santorno or other members of her administration, depending on the nature of the emergency, Voelpel said.
One recent example of how it worked occurred in 2015, after an explosive device was found on the roof of a home near Sheridan Elementary School.
Sheridan and other nearby schools went into lockdown, and Sheridan students were moved to another school, while law enforcement officers removed the device.
All school layouts have been mapped in detail, and the fire and police departments have access to the information. Every school has an emergency protocol that includes procedures for lockdowns and evacuations, and every school has an emergency kit, Voelpel added.
Not all those improvements have direct roots in the Foss tragedy. Since 2007, other communities have endured school shootings that prompted changes nationwide in school emergency and security measures.
But one direct lesson from the Foss shooting resulted in each Tacoma school developing a reunification plan, so that parents get clear instructions on how to find their students after a crisis ends.
Police patrolling the halls
One of the biggest changes was the school board’s decision to contract with the city for police officers to patrol the city’s five comprehensive high schools — Foss, Mount Tahoma, Lincoln, Wilson and Stadium.
The plan took some time to implement, and it wasn’t until the start of the 2009-10 school year that the school resource officers (SROs), as they are known, started walking the hallways.
Earlier this year, a sixth officer — a supervisory sergeant — was added to the mix and stationed at Oakland High School, the city’s alternative high school.
The current five-year contract between the Police Department and the school district sets a maximum payment by the district at just over $2.1 million.
Lt. Frank Krause was the SRO program’s initial Police Department supervisor.
While Tacoma schools had on occasion hired off-duty officers to supplement the district’s security personnel, SROs were different.
“They are integrated into the school,” he said. “Kids see the same person day after day. Officers see the same kids.”
Krause said the program has been a positive influence on police-school district relations. He’s seen it pay off in subsequent crises, such as in 2010, when a teacher was killed on the grounds of Birney Elementary School by a man who’d been stalking her for years.
Kids see the same person day after day. Officers see the same kids.
Lt. Frank Krause, Tacoma Police Department
“The relationship and trust we’ve built over the last seven years is incredible,” Krause said. “It’s been the biggest benefit to the SRO program.”
Miguel Villahermosa, the School District’s director of safety and security since 2008, said in an email that from the start, the SROs have operated as “a preventive presence rather than an enforcement presence.”
“They continue to build relationships with students and families that are beneficial to our community at large,” he added.
SROs operate in schools all over the country. A 2007 U. S. Department of Justice survey reported more than 17,000 of them. SROs get specialized training that teaches them how to walk the line between policing and educating. They see themselves in both roles.
Tacoma SROs work six-year rotations. Officer Tel Thompson is in his third year as Foss SRO. As he makes his rounds on a school day, it’s clear he has a command of the students and the school building.
He knows every entrance and exit — the school has 37 external doors — and he checks them daily to ensure they’re locked. This year, a new secure main entrance was added. A video camera displays the face of anyone asking to enter the school, and visitors must contact someone in the main office for access.
Tacoma has piloted secure entries with video at Foss and two other schools: Mason Middle and Jennie Reed Elementary.
New schools are being built with double entries — visitors first are admitted to a secure internal vestibule where staff members assess their intent before unlocking the main door to the school.
Voelpel said officials have discussed including funding for more security enhancements in future bond proposals.
Breaking ‘school-to-prison pipeline’
Elsewhere in the country, the presence of police in schools has created controversy.
Critics say it has helped fuel the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” by criminalizing student misbehavior, resulting in arrests for things that in days gone by would have merited only a trip to the principal’s office.
YouTube videos have shown police officers in other states wrestling kids to the ground in classrooms.
“A lot of people think that we are here to arrest kids,” said Thompson, the Foss SRO. “My job here is to break the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline.”
Thompson listens to homeless students talk about their problems. He helped one student get on a bus, headed for drug treatment. He sits with students at lunch tables in the school cafeteria, and listens.
Students such as junior Micah Williams say they appreciate Thompson’s “up for it” attitude and his willingness to listen.
Senior Julia Prats, an exchange student from Spain, said she was surprised to see a police officer when she arrived at Foss. But she said Thompson’s presence makes her feel safe.
Thompson said he responds to major incidents involving violence, weapons or other crimes at the school. He leaves disciplinary incidents to school administrators. He estimates he might make as many as 10 arrests in a typical school year.
The News Tribune sought records of complaints against Tacoma SROS.
School officials said they found none in either the district security office or its human resources files. The Police Department forwarded one cache of records involving complaints filed against officers who had worked as SROs; all were minor and none involved incidents at schools.
City and School District records officers were continuing to search their files as this story was written.
The Foss family takes care of each other; they support one another.
Lysandra Ness, principal at Foss IB World School
The Foss family
When Lysandra Ness was preparing to start her job as Foss principal in the fall of 2015, one of the first things she did was look at the school’s entry on Wikipedia.
The 2007 shooting was the first thing mentioned.
“So I edited it,” she said. She inserted a mention of several Foss alumni, including Seattle television personality Jesse Jones.
“We have a rich history,” Ness said. “We have the oldest IB (International Baccalaureate) program in the state of Washington.”
The school recently adopted a new name to reflect its role: It’s now called Henry Foss IB World School. IB is a rigorous academic program with a global focus that’s used at schools around the world.
“I fell in love with this school, this community, this staff,” Ness said. “The Foss family takes care of each other, they support one another.”
Social studies teacher Antoine Paige is another proud member of the Foss community.
He was a sophomore at the school when the shooting happened. He remembers feeling protected by faculty and staff members as they stood strong that day. He recalls Bahr coming into the gym where students were gathered to tell them, in a strong, booming voice, that there had been a shooting, but that they were safe.
“He helped ease our fears,” Paige said.
Paige graduated from Foss in 2009. After earning his master’s degree, the only school he applied to was his alma mater. He started teaching there this year.
He’s stayed in touch with many of the people he met as a Foss student. He believes students who experienced the shooting were drawn together.
And he said many of his classmates were inspired to give back to their community. Several have started charity efforts, everything from collecting coats for needy kids to offering free haircuts.
That spirit is what drew Paige back to Foss as a teacher.
“When you come here,” he said, “you become part of the Foss family.”