Like many high school students, Tokoyo Palmer liked to crack jokes, play sports and be the center of attention.
But he struggled in a classroom environment, according to Lakeisha Weber, his biology teacher at Sarah T. Reed Senior High School in late 2012.
As Weber prepared for a meeting one day with Tokoyo, his father and the school counselor, she learned something startling about him: He was homeless.
“He was almost a nomad, and he was just trying to find somewhere to fit in,” Weber said Wednesday. “He found it (at Sarah Reed), but it took some time, because he couldn’t really get in the hang of the classroom structure because he wanted to crack jokes.”
Weber said the meeting became about more than Palmer’s academic struggles.
“It turned into a session on how they could make sure that (Palmer) could get everything he needed,” Weber said.
About 7:30 a.m. Monday, the teen’s short, difficult life came to an abrupt end. Residents of an Algiers apartment complex heard four loud shots and found Palmer, 17, with his black Nike backpack, lying in a pool of blood in the middle of the parking lot. He died later that morning.
New Orleans police believe he was shot by an acquaintance angry that Palmer had failed to return a video game controller he had borrowed.
Homicide Division Cmdr. Sgt. Nicholas Gernon told WWL-TV on Tuesday that Palmer was on his way to the bus stop when 19-year-old Kareem Richards allegedly shot him in the 3700 block of Garden Oaks Drive in Algiers. The station reported that the two were once friends and lived in the same neighborhood.
Palmer was attending Landry-Walker High School at the time of his death.
Weber, Palmer’s former biology teacher, said the two youths attended Sarah T. Reed together in 2012. She didn’t teach Richards, she said, but she recognized him when his photo was released Tuesday.
“He used to fight a lot,” Weber said in reference to Richards.
In 2011, Palmer’s homelessness attracted the attention of RT, a news outlet funded by the Russian government that covers international news. The outlet, considered by some to be a propaganda tool of the Russian state, published a story describing how Tokoyo and his father, Ralph, moved to Los Angles after “losing everything in Hurricane Katrina.”
The article explained how, while in California, Tokoyo took two buses to get to school, and that after class he came back to a shelter where he and his dad stayed. His only good meal was school lunch, the article said, adding that “having dinner or even having a place to stay at night is always uncertain.”
“I don’t want no kids to go through this. I’m 14 years old; this is a lot of tragedy for me,” Palmer said at the time.
He also told RT: “The world needs to know what it is to be homeless because my secret to get through homelessness is school.”
The precise nature of Palmer’s recent living circumstances and family situation are somewhat unclear. It’s not known if he was homeless at the time of his death.
Members of the Palmer family, through Brandon Armant, a spokesman for Landry-Walker High School, declined to comment.
Armant wouldn’t say whether Palmer was homeless, though he said some teachers and counselors at Landry-Walker had given the teenager money to live on out of their own pockets.
Weber said she lost touch with Palmer when he left Sarah T. Reed after one semester. Though he had struggled in her class, she said he was a great kid who made people laugh and smile.
“He was silly in class, not disrespectful, but really, really silly,” she said. “It was an escape. It was a way to smile, because he knew when he left there, there wasn’t really much to smile about.”
Despite the obvious challenges Palmer faced and the instability of his family situation, Weber was struck by the affection the boy’s father showed for his son.
The meeting in fall 2012 with Tokoyo, his father and a school counselor ended with everyone in tears as they discussed how to get Tokoyo the help he needed, Weber said. Tokoyo’s father’s passion was evident, she said, and she realized the teenager had a great dad.
“I’ve never seen a father that passionate about their child,” Weber said.