Uvalde picks up pieces as shifting accounts of attack trouble officials

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott
People embrace at a memorial for Robb Elementary School students and teachers at the town square in Uvalde, Texas on May 27, 2022.

UVALDE, Texas — On the eve of the president’s visit, reeling from constantly shifting depictions of law enforcement’s response to a gunman who killed their teachers and children and just before they begin to bury the dead, the people of Uvalde on Saturday took a moment.

Most stores downtown were closed up, windows painted with messages such as “Pray for Uvalde” and “Uvalde Strong.” At the Rexall, an old-school soda fountain with yellow ribbons and a bouquet tied on the door, a paper sign announced that the restaurant was giving its employees time off to heal.

The nation might need the same.

President Joe Biden called for national unity in a commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Delaware; he and first lady Jill Biden are scheduled to visit Texas on Sunday. Vice President Kamala Harris was in Buffalo to attend a funeral for one of the 10 people killed in the May 14 mass shooting at a grocery store.

Demands for accountability in Uvalde increased Saturday after officials acknowledged law enforcement officers improperly waited an excruciatingly long time before rushing the classroom where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers.

Rogelio M. Muñoz, a former city council member who left office because of term limits, said in an interview Saturday that what the community had learned so far about the police response is “very concerning.”

Texas authorities made clear on Friday that many things went wrong earlier in the week. Muñoz criticized the Texas Department of Public Safety for its shifting accounts of what occurred at the school on Tuesday, but he cautioned against drawing too many conclusions.

“The facts are still developing and it’s hard to assess blame or judgment on anybody when we don’t know all the facts,” he said.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, said, “We’re all angry. Law enforcement’s angry,” during an interview with CNN on Saturday morning. He said he spoke on Saturday with Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, and that the two men cried together.

The latest official — and troubling — accounts of how that day unfolded have come from McCraw. He confirmed that officers waited for nearly an hour in a hallway outside the locked classroom, where authorities say Salvador Rolando Ramos was shooting children and killing their teachers.

McCraw said local authorities had incorrectly concluded that the gunman was no longer an active shooter and that no more children were at risk. But children inside the room repeatedly called 911 pleading for help, McCraw said.

“It was the wrong decision,” McCraw said during a news briefing. “Period.”

McCraw said the person in charge at the scene was the school district’s police chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo. Arredondo did not respond to requests for comment Friday or Saturday, and his home here was guarded by police vehicles.

Gutierrez said he expected McCraw to release a detailed report in the coming week.

“I want to know when each agency was here,” Gutierrez said.

In hindsight, some officials and law enforcement experts are questioning whether Arredondo should have remained the on-scene commander during an active-shooter situation after other agencies arrived at Robb Elementary.

Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, noted that designating a strong on-scene commander can be critical to responding to tragedies. On-scene responsibilities also can be passed off to an official at a different agency with more of a tactical background, he said.

“The point is, someone needs to be the incident commander,” Trump said.

“These school-based police programs can save lives, but that doesn’t matter to those parents and people of that community in Uvalde when incidents like these occur.”

The Texas Association of School Resource Officers, which trains police on how to respond to school shootings and other threats, emphasizes in its trainings that police officers need to be prepared to face active shooters without waiting for backup,

“Before the cavalry come, you have to actually be engaging with this guy,” TASRO Vice President Michael Boyd said in an interview Saturday.

A training guide on the website of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement dated January 2020, which is the training that TASRO uses in its courses, notes that “a first responder unwilling to place the lives of the innocent above their own safety should consider another career field.”

Texas House Bill 2195, which was enacted in 2019, required school officers to complete an active-shooter training program approved by the commission.

Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit campus safety organization, wasn’t alarmed that Arredondo remained in charge on Tuesday. But Dorn was concerned that the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, which includes Robb Elementary, relied on the “Standard Response Protocol,” a process for how students respond during an emergency. It is a nationally recognized method developed by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation focusing on school safety, according to the foundation’s website.

Dorn argued that the protocol, which is popular because of its emotive marketing and ease of implementation, is an “extremely unsound approach” because he claims it regularly fails to train school employees on how to properly lock down a classroom.

“These mistakes were made long before this event,” Dorn said. “We’ve been telling clients not to use the SRP for years,” Dorn said.

John-Michael Keyes, executive director of the “I Love U Guys” Foundation, defended the program as “basic guidance based on sound factual conclusions.”

“It’s really important we have a lot of voices in this conversation, and I think absolute evaluation is imperative,” he said.

Kim Vickers, executive director of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, said that he was reluctant to criticize the actions that took place on Tuesday based on the limited information available in the immediate aftermath.

“I will say at face value, it appears that normal active-shooter protocols might not have been followed,” Vickers said in an interview. “I’ve been through multiple active-shooter courses. The emphasis is to move quickly and engage.”

Another facet of the police response that has come under question is why officers had to wait for keys from a janitor to finally unlock the classroom door and kill the gunman. Vickers said there is no Texas regulation or protocol on whether master keys to all classrooms in a building should be available and to whom.

“It does seem that it would make sense to have access to public buildings like that for a department, but that’s a local control issue,” he said.

Jeff Foley, TASRO president and training coordinator, said that all officers working at the school district where he is employed have a set of master keys that will open any door throughout the entire district.

“If an active shooter comes into one of my campuses, the responding officers have the ability to have keys and get in,” Foley said.

The sheer number of mass shootings this year has led to numerous calls for a tougher response from the federal government.

Harris went to Buffalo on Saturday to meet with relatives of those killed and attend a funeral for 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield. Biden visited the city on May 17.

During a commencement speech on Saturday, Biden nodded to the tragedies that have gripped the nation.

“As I speak, those parents are literally preparing to bury their children. In the United States of America — to bury their children. There’s too much violence, too much fear, too much grief,” Biden said.

Biden alternated between sorrow and the kind of optimism about the future that is a hallmark of commencement addresses.

“We cannot outlaw tragedy, I know, but we can make Americans safer,” Biden said. “We can finally do what we have to to protect the lives of the people and of our children. So I call on all Americans in this hour to join hands and make your voices heard and work together to make this nation what it can and should be.”

The White House has called for increased gun-control measures, but Biden was not specific in his speech about what those proposals would be. Harris, speaking to reporters, was: “We are not sitting around waiting to figure out what the solution is. Let’s have an assault weapons ban.”

Here in Uvalde, a seemingly endless schedule of funerals has been released, beginning Tuesday and stretching for nearly two weeks. One of the first will be for Amerie Jo Garza, one of the 19 children killed.

If the community was convulsed with grief, the Uvalde town square was its broken heart.

By Saturday, the white crosses placed around the fountain at its center — one for each victim — had been partially obscured behind heaps of heart-shaped balloons, teddy bears and flowers, some of them starting to wilt under the heavy sun.

“Everyone’s still trying to process and wrap their head around it,” said Emma Clark, 34, who came to hand out multicolor chalk in her maroon Uvalde hat. “What’s clear now is the strength in our community and how we’ve been able to get together and mourn together.”

The site had become a kind of pilgrimage spot, too, for many others from far beyond.

On the gray pathways around the square, people wrote chalk messages that cited Bible verses and said “God is still the light!”

Alayna Borrego, 11, arrived with a different message.

She had attended Robb Elementary just a few years ago and had befriended one of the victims, Jacklyn Cazares, in an after-school gymnastics class.

On Saturday, she arrived with a white poster almost as tall as she was, on which she scribbled: “I want to live. I want to study. I want to be a dentist. Don’t kill me!”

“We’ve been feeling really scared to go back to school,” Alayna said. “It’s scary to know this could happen in any school, that they could do it again and again and again if they would like to.”

The grown-ups, she said, needed to do something to fix it.

“Some people should not have weapons they’re allowed to get,” she said. “And the police officers should have everything more controlled.”

Muñoz, the former city council member, had a similar message.

“The focus is going to shift to whether the police didn’t respond appropriately, but the one indisputable fact is that if this kid, who was 18 years old, wasn’t able to buy a gun this wouldn’t have happened,” Muñoz said. “We have a large segment of the population that believe that any gun restriction is anti-American and it’s just hard to understand. What I would ask those people is how many more kids have to die?”