By María Méndez, The Texas Tribune
“Uvalde school shooting: What we know one year later” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
After a teenage gunman entered Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School one year ago today, he fatally shot 19 children and two teachers and injured 17 people, perpetrating what became the deadliest school shooting in Texas history.
The city of about 25,000 residents west of San Antonio was simultaneously plunged into incalculable grief and the epicenter of America’s debate on semi-automatic rifles.
In the year since, investigations by state officials and journalists found lapses in public safety communication and leadership that contributed to significant delays in law enforcement action and medical care.
Families of the shooting victims repeatedly journeyed to both the Texas and U.S. Capitols to call for gun control measures to prevent more bloodshed. Within weeks of the shooting, federal lawmakers passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn helped negotiate passage of the legislation, which contained modest provisions but which was also the most significant federal gun measure passed in nearly three decades. But rather than pass gun measures of their own, state leaders have largely focused on improving school safety and access to mental health care.
Meanwhile, families of the Uvalde victims and some of the shooting’s survivors have spent the past year coping with grief and trauma.
Almost 400 officers from several local, state and federal law enforcement agencies responded to Robb Elementary on May 24, 2022. But they did not immediately confront the gunman, who was in two conjoined classrooms filled with 33 students and three teachers. After initially being driven back by gunfire, the law enforcement officers waited more than an hour for a Border Patrol tactical team to arrive and breach the classrooms, despite nationwide active shooter protocols that call on officers to stop an attacker as soon as possible.
Investigations and videos from inside the school have revealed that the 376 law enforcement officers present that day missed several opportunities to stop the gunman in the midst of unclear communication and leadership. A Texas House committee report also found “systemic failures” and missed warning signs that the gunman may have been planning a violent attack.
Inside the school, some police officers attempted to approach the classrooms the gunman took over, but they weren’t backed up by colleagues, according to records and footage reviewed by The Texas Tribune.
Another frustrated state trooper urged officers to enter but was told by a police officer that they hadn’t received those orders. Some officers at the scene seemed to believe that Pete Arredondo, the police chief of the Uvalde school district, was in charge. Although at one point he directed officers to evacuate other classrooms, Arredondo has said he did not think he was the incident commander leading the law enforcement response. Arredondo also left his police radio behind, limiting his communication with officers.
A Tribune review of emergency communications and interviews with law enforcement at the school found that officers also avoided the classrooms because the gunman had an AR-15-style rifle — a weapon initially designed for military use that can efficiently kill.
Rifles like the AR-15 have more power than handguns, such as common police pistols, and can penetrate the lighter body armor usually worn by police officers on patrol. They also cause more damage to the human body.
In two and a half minutes, before any police officer set foot inside the school, the gunman fired more than 100 rounds at students and teachers from point-blank range. Upon breach, 18 of the 21 victims were already dead.
A Texas Tribune, ProPublica and Washington Post investigation found further delays in the medical response that prevented some victims, including teacher Eva Mireles, from quickly receiving lifesaving treatment.
Mireles called her husband, district police officer Ruben Ruiz, who tried rushing into one of the classrooms to save her after she said she was bleeding. Ruiz was stopped by colleagues who seized his handgun.
The disjointed medical response, which also included lapses in communication and muddled lines of authority, frustrated medics while delaying efforts to get ambulances, air transport and other emergency services to victims.
For example, medical helicopters with critical supplies of blood tried to land at the school, but an unidentified fire department official told them to wait at an airport 3 miles away. And only two ambulances were seen outside the school in police camera footage, while dozens of parked police vehicles blocked other ambulances’ paths.
After the delayed police response, Arredondo was fired by the Uvalde school board in August. He also stepped down from the Uvalde City Council seat he had recently been elected to before the school shooting.
The district’s police department was suspended for an unspecified amount of time, and superintendent Hal Harrell resigned in October. Harrell will remain “superintendent emeritus” until August, the district said. Gary Patterson is listed as the district’s interim superintendent. No district police information is listed on the district’s website. A spokesperson for the school district did not respond to the Tribune’s requests for comment this month.
The district also fired a former Department of Public Safety trooper that it had hired after it was reported she was one of the first officers to respond to the shooting. Robb Elementary School principal Mandy Gutierrez was briefly placed on paid administrative leave in July but was quickly reinstated after she rebuffed claims about the school’s safety measures in a state committee report.
DPS, which completed an internal investigation into its officers’ response, said in February that it would fire two troopers. This did not include the trooper hired and fired by the district, who resigned before the investigation concluded.
Families of the 21 victims and other Uvalde community members confronted a return to school and holidays as they coped with long-lasting trauma and grieved loved ones, who were memorialized in murals across the town.
But despite an outpouring of support from people across the world and millions of dollars in aid, some families have also struggled financially as those donations and state resources trickled in.
There are still ongoing fundraising efforts to support families, such as through the group Lives Robbed, which is advocating for gun violence prevention laws. Other fundraisers honor victims by founding scholarships in their name, including for students Tess Marie Mata, Alithia Haven Ramirez, Makenna Lee Elrod Seiler and Jackie Cazares.
Many families became politically active, packing Uvalde City Council and school board meetings to demand more school security and call for the firing of police officers. They also traveled to Austin and Washington, D.C., to urge lawmakers to adopt stricter gun laws, such as raising the minimum age to legally purchase AR-15-style rifles from 18 to 21. That measure, though, appears unlikely to pass after House Bill 2744 missed key legislative deadlines.
Some Uvalde residents also waded in to the 2022 elections. Some rooted for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke to oust Gov. Greg Abbott, and one father even ran for a county seat. Despite those lost elections, parents and relatives persisted at the Texas Legislature, where they continued to call on lawmakers to pass increased gun regulations during this spring legislative session. One mother also sued the Uvalde school district and the manufacturer of the gunman’s weapon.
Abbott and other Texas Republicans have mostly ignored calls for increased gun restrictions since the Uvalde shooting, instead focusing on mental health funding and school safety.
In late June, Abbott and state leaders announced they would dedicate $100 million in state funds to boost school safety and mental health services through August 2023. Most of the funds went toward bullet-resistant shields for school police officers and for school districts to buy silent panic alert technology to alert police of an intruder.
Cornyn negotiated a federal bill signed into law last June with modest gun control measures that addressed a “boyfriend loophole,” which previously exempted some dating partners from a federal ban on firearm purchases for those convicted of domestic violence. The bill also included incentives for states to impose “red flag laws,” which allow for the temporary confiscation of guns from people found by a judge to be dangerous. Texas has not moved to impose such a law.
Texas lawmakers also appear unlikely to raise the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 from 18 to 21 after a bill to do so missed key legislative deadlines. But gun safety advocates say they still see incremental progress through two gun-related bills passed by both chambers of the Legislature.
Senate Bill 728 requires courts to report involuntary mental health hospitalizations of juveniles 16 and older for inclusion in the federal background check system to purchase firearms. The bill, sent to the governor’s desk, addresses a loophole exposed by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica following the shooting in Uvalde.
House Bill 2454 would restrict a person from buying a gun for another person not allowed to have one. It has passed both chambers, but the House must accept or negotiate amendments made to the bill by the Senate before the legislative session ends May 29.
Lawmakers have also advanced legislation to fund campus security upgrades, add requirements such as silent panic buttons in classrooms and create a new safety and security department within the Texas Education Agency. The department would have the authority to compel school districts to establish active-shooter protocols — something about half of the state’s school districts failed to have, according to an audit in 2020.
Texas lawmakers have also proposed more funding for school mental health services as part of school safety legislation. However, school officials worry that money will instead be used up by school security upgrades and want a dedicated funding stream for mental health assistance. Lawmakers would have to act quickly to do so before the legislative session ends, though Abbott has warned of a special session if certain Republican priorities aren’t passed.
Abbott also appointed a chief of school safety and security, a new position he created in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting, and ordered “random intruder audits” of schools to begin last fall to detect weak points in campus safety. The inspections were to be carried out by the Texas School Safety Center, a research center at Texas State University long tasked with collecting and distributing school safety information.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/05/24/uvalde-school-shooting-what-to-know/.
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