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“Whenever I read about the shooting in Connecticut, they don’t mention Cleveland at all,” says Koeurt, 59, who emerged as the leader of the sizable Cambodian community that settled in Stockton in the 1980s after escaping their homeland’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. More than two-thirds of Cleveland Elementary’s 975 students at the time of the shooting were Southeast Asian; four of the five fatally wounded children were Cambodian. (The fifth, 6-year-old Thuy Tran, was Vietnamese.) From the fraught sanctuary of Faith Lutheran Church, next door to the school, Koeurt communicated status updates to the other Cambodian parents desperate for news about their kids. Later, Koeurt identified the body of 6-year-old Sokhim An. “How many times do they not realize that this has happened?” she asks. “It’s like they’ve forgot about it completely.”
That sentiment singularly haunts the Cleveland legacy. Life in Stockton has gone on since the helicopters lifted bleeding children off the field, since the custodians patched the bullet holes in time for classes to resume the following day, since the massive counseling effort got underway for victims and witnesses. Twenty-five years later, however, it remains the flashpoint of an unthinkable phenomenon—the place where differences would be made and yet, somehow, nothing would change.
“We had to do something about it and [try to] make sure it didn’t happen anywhere else,” says Gary Gillis, a retired Stockton fire chief who reported to Cleveland in 1989 as a paramedic. “We went up to Sacramento. Our voices were heard. We went in the right direction. We did what we could. So there’s great pride in Stocktonians that we were able to warn the rest of the country: It’s going to happen to you. Some Stocktonians thought, ‘Well, it’s only going to happen here,’ or whatever. But unfortunately it’s borne out that it’s happening more and more. Not just in the United States now; it’s happening all over the world. I think that Stocktonians are resigned to the fact that it’s going to continue to happen unless [others] listen to what we said in 1989. We were virtually one voice, one community saying, ‘You’ve got to do something about this, because we don’t want anyone else to suffer from this.’”
Even as the city and the country struggle with their implications, the events of Jan. 17, 1989 have imprinted Stockton with a tragic and oft-overlooked significance: In the modern era of school shootings, no place in America has more years of experience answering the only question arguably more crucial than “Why?”
How it sounded at first depended on where you were at approximately 11:45 a.m. Many of the kids on the playground or field thought they heard firecrackers. From her classroom, a fourth-grade teacher mistook it for a drum tap. A 911 caller who announced himself as a Vietnam War veteran declared it was fire from an AK-47 rifle. The dispatcher summoned her supervisor. “Listen to this,” she told him before replaying a tape recording of the call. They couldn’t hear the sound in question but were struck instead by the caller’s certitude. “You could tell from his voice that he was dead serious,” recalls Ken Uehling, who oversaw the Stockton fire and medical dispatch center on the morning of Jan. 17. “This was not a prank. He knew what he knew."
Uehling called Engine 9, which the dispatch center had sent moments earlier to investigate a burning car on Stadium Drive, just behind Cleveland Elementary School. He relayed to the crew that a caller heard shots fired, advising them to proceed to the site with extreme caution. He called Stockton Police to alert the watch commander. By the time Uehling ended the call, the center was swamped with new reports confirming gunfire at Cleveland.
One mile southeast of the school, firefighter Kim Olson was off duty at St. Joseph’s Hospital. He typically flew as a paramedic on the emergency helicopter Medi-Flight 2, but on this particular morning he found himself irretrievably on edge, tense with nerves and some vague dread he couldn’t place. He went to the coffee room and caught up with another paramedic whose radio crackled to life with Uehling’s advisory: “Shots fired."
The other paramedic was dispatched to the scene and left for the school. Envisioning the worst and worrying that helicopters might be ignored in the developing frenzy, Olson called flight dispatch, followed by a call to the dispatch center for Stockton Fire.“We’re gonna launch Medi-Flight 2,” he told the head dispatcher. “Go ahead and launch Medi-Flight 1."
Seven-year-old Paul Taing was at recess with the rest of the primary schoolers. The slaps of a red rubber ball on the four square court ceded to piercing blasts. Brandon Smith heard the bangs as well on the field, where the 9-year-old was playing football. From the unseen, unknown distance, a voice yelled to them and his Cleveland School classmates. “Run! Somebody’s shooting!”
Taing ran. Smith ran. They all ran. First-graders, second-graders, third-graders, teachers, monitors, every kid in their sweaters and winter coats, new shoes delivered by Santa Claus, shrieking and pounding over asphalt and turf, through the din, over the din, toward the safety of the school. Hundreds of bodies racing, churning until bullets started finding them like sideways rain.
Rathanar Or ran. First-grader Robby Young sprinted behind him from the kickball court. Young thought he heard firecrackers, too, before Or seized and tensed up and fell to the playground roughly 20 yards in front of him. Dead. Young kept moving. He figured that if he could just make it to the wooden handball wall in the middle of the yard, he would be all right. Fifty yards. He could get there. He scanned the chaos. He hunted for his best friend, Scottie Barton, lost in the stampede. Young’s search had turned his body toward the rear of the school, the origin of the shooting. He didn’t see Scottie, and he didn’t see a shooter, but he felt his feet lifted from beneath him and over his head as he went tumbling to the blacktop.
Taing made it to a bench near his classroom when he was forced down by the bullet entering and exiting his right side—a clean, direct line from kidney to abdomen. He popped back up, flush with adrenaline and terror, hustling again to his classroom. His first thought was of his mother and family. “I started crying, but not because of the pain,” Taing says today. “Because I thought I would never see people again.”
Brandon Smith continued running, watching kids hiding behind sandbox barricades and jungle gyms. He’d seen one of his football buddies make it about 100 yards to a classroom. Smith figured he could also make it until a shot tripped him up. He didn’t fall, but rather fought off the warm numbness accruing in his left leg. He managed his way to a tree at the corner of the campus, looking back at a row of his small, bloody footsteps. Smith collapsed and pulled up his left pant leg. The bullet had blown through nerve and muscle just above his ankle but narrowly missed the bone. He contemplated his next move and his dead leg. He checked around him and spotted a classroom with the door open. “A teacher was pulling kids into the classroom,” Smith remembers, “and I tried to get up and walk to the door, and I couldn’t make it.”
Robby Young felt the heaviness in his feet and the jolt in his chest. A bullet had pierced his right foot, knocking him to the ground. An instant later, another round had shattered on the pavement in front of him, deploying its fragments into the left side of his chest. “I just remember how powerful it seemed,” Young recalls. “A lot of force.” Yet he’d made it to the handball wall, where splinters and debris exploded over his head as AK-47 rounds punched through the wood. Across the playground, he saw the open door of his classroom. Young stood up and made a sluggish dash through the last of the gunfire, blood pulsing from his foot and out of the side of his shoe. Finally he saw his friend Scottie Barton sitting on the blacktop, where a yard supervisor scooped Barton up and took off running.
Olson and a nurse, Gigi Nault, departed from St. Joseph’s Hospital with their pilot. Lifting off from the roof in Medi-Flight 2, Nault looked down at kids frolicking at a school across the street. Thirty seconds later their helicopter was forced into an orbit around Cleveland until the shooting finally ended. When it did, and Medi-Flight 2 flew back in over the school, Nault was struck by the contrast between playgrounds. She watched a ball bounce along, rolling and glancing off one of five still bodies lying on the blacktop, covered with a jacket.
“We’ve got five on the ground,” firefighter Olson said.
“No,” Nault said, disbelieving. “Those are just clothes. Those are just coats.”
At the dispatch center, Uehling and his dispatchers started receiving calls from news reporters to 911. “We’d just immediately hang up on them,” he says.