Texas House report on Uvalde shooting blames all agencies at the scene

Photo for The Washington Post by Sergio Flores
A memorial at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on June 21.

The most exhaustive report yet on the May 24 mass shooting inside a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school spread blame across every law enforcement agency responding to the attack, faulting local police for mistakes and more experienced agencies for failing to take charge.

Nearly 400 local, state and federal law enforcement officers were at the scene that day, including 91 state troopers – none of whom moved to lead the response, the Texas House investigative report said. The school district police chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, wrote its active-shooter response plan and assigned himself as incident commander but did not follow the protocol he had set up, the report said.

The report said it was not clear whether lives could have been saved with a swifter response, but it left open the possibility.

“The void of leadership could have contributed to the loss of life as injured victims waited over an hour for help, and the attacker continued to sporadically fire his weapon,” the 77-page report says.

Rather than isolate blame on Arredondo, as Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw had after the shooting, the report casts a broader net of responsibility over “the entirety of law enforcement . . . on that tragic day.” That included DPS officers.

“Hundreds of responders from numerous law enforcement agencies – many of whom were better trained and better equipped than the school district police – quickly arrived on the scene,” the report says. “Those other responders, who also had training on active shooter response and the interrelation of law enforcement agencies, could have helped to address the unfolding chaos. Yet in this crisis, no responder seized the initiative.”

Nineteen students and two teachers died in the fusillade by 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, who was killed when police eventually broke into a classroom.

“Other than the attacker, this report did not find any ‘villains’ in the course of its investigation. There is no one to whom we can attribute malice or ill motives,” the report said. “Instead, we found systemic failures and egregious poor decision making.”

After the report’s release, Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin made public body-camera footage from city police officers responding to the shooting, saying in a statement that the city still has unanswered questions.

The videos showed a confused scene inside the school, with officers heard asking who was in charge. One unidentified officer says he thinks it is Arredondo, who is at another end of the hallway. But after nearly a half-hour passes and word that a wounded student has phoned 911 for help circulates among the group, officers begin to get impatient.

“What’s going on?” one asks. Nearby, an officer rushes into the area with a box of tear gas, presumably to launch a confrontation with the gunman – only to realize that the officers don’t have gas masks.

McLaughlin also said the city has suspended Uvalde police Lt. Mariano Pargas, who was acting chief on May 24, placing him on leave pending an internal investigation.

“We agree with the Committee’s review of the incident, there was failure of command,” the mayor said in a statement. Later, at an angry news conference, McLaughlin added, “This report is not all the answers, but it’s the most truthful they’ve been to this point.”

Led by state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R, the House committee interviewed three dozen people and reviewed hours of audiovisual evidence, deposing everyone from McLaughlin to the 911 dispatcher, the school custodian and Arredondo. Some initially resisted interview requests, including Uvalde police officers and Uvalde County Sheriff Ruben Nolasco, but after some negotiation, they all relented.

The committee, which also included former Texas Supreme Court justice Eva Guzman, R, and El Paso state Rep. Joe Moody, D, held its interviews behind closed doors as the committee stepped gingerly around ongoing criminal investigations by the Texas Rangers, the FBI and Uvalde District Attorney Christina Busbee.

Report authors said their focus was to bring much-needed answers to Uvalde families struggling to trust anyone with authority in Texas amid competing narratives about how the children and teachers were killed. They began with brief biographies of every victim and acknowledged their work as an “interim report” because lawmakers did not have access to all material witnesses or evidence, which could eventually alter or contradict their conclusions.

The report went beyond the law enforcement response to the school district’s security measures and lack of preparation before the attack. It cited a culture of “noncompliance” from school administrators who were aware of unsafe practices such as teachers routinely leaving doors unlocked or propping them open and the shortage of keys for interior and exterior entrances. While the district implemented some security enhancements using state funds distributed in the wake of other school shootings, those improvements – such as the chain-link fence erected around the building and video cameras – were not effective against the young gunman.

Poor internet and mobile coverage interfered with teachers receiving lockdown notifications and being able to report the attack to local police. Robb Elementary personnel such as teacher Arnulfo Reyes, who survived, recalled no notification or alert. He had no time to hide students or react before the attacker was inside the school.

“If the alert had reached more teachers sooner, it is likely that more could have been done to protect them and their students,” the report said.

The district’s school alert system had been used so frequently in the months prior that the sense of urgency among teachers had weakened. The system had triggered dozens of notifications related to “bailouts,” or police chases of smuggler vehicles transporting immigrants.

“Because of these failures of facilities maintenance and advance preparation, the attacker fired most of his shots and likely murdered most of his innocent victims before any responder set foot in the building,” the report concluded. “Of the approximately 142 rounds the attacker fired inside the building, it is almost certain that he rapidly fired over 100 of those rounds before any officer entered.”

Among the first officers to arrive was Arredondo, who leads a team of six officers, alongside Uvalde Police SWAT commander Eduardo Canales. The schools police chief failed to act as commander and he did not transfer the duty to anyone else.

The report quotes Arredondo as saying he thought he “was responding as a police officer. And so I didn’t title myself.” He added that “you can always hope and pray that there’s an incident command post outside. I just didn’t have access to that.”

The report said Arredondo and other officers contended they were justified in treating the attacker as a “barricaded subject” rather than an “active shooter” – which would have required a faster response – because of lack of visual confirmation of injuries or other information.

In the resulting chaos, no one collected critical information – such as whether anyone had survived the initial gunfire – to make decisions. Instead of reassessing, officers thought they “had time on their side.”

“An effective incident commander located away from the drama unfolding inside the building” would have found other lines of communication beyond the malfunctioning radios and would have known about the 911 calls coming from inside the classrooms, the report said. Such a commander would have known to ask for a master key and ordered officers to try doors before assuming they were locked. He would have known or suggested reaching the shooter by coming in through the windows, the report said.

But not one of the 376 law enforcement agents at the scene – some “better equipped and better trained” – ever stepped into the breach.

DPS special agent Luke Williams was among the officers early to arrive but ignored directions from others to help at the perimeter. Instead, he entered the school, rescued a boy hiding in a bathroom and approached the officers waiting for ballistic shields.

Someone asked, “y’all don’t know if there’s kids in there?” the report recounts.

“If there’s kids in there, we need to go in there,” Williams said.

While the report does not say conclusively that lives could have been saved with a faster response, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D, who represents Uvalde, said time was undoubtedly a factor.

“If they had waited five minutes more Mayah Zamora might not be here. So who’s to say this delay did not cost lives?” Gutierrez said about a still-hospitalized 10-year-old survivor.

Before the report emerged, official agencies were already trying to shift responsibility. State troopers peddled false information to the media and officials at the scene, saying police had confronted the gunman early outside the school, were injured and followed him inside. Gov. Greg Abbott, R, initially praised the police response, then said he was misled. State police chief McCraw later unveiled a timeline, outlining a delayed response full of bewildering errors by the incident commander, Arredondo, who disputed the characterization in an interview with the Texas Tribune. McLaughlin, the mayor, accused the state of pinning blame on their town. Texas State University researchers briefed by the DPS found that Uvalde police had a chance to stop the massacre.

Then came the report’s video leaked last week, which showed a black-clad Ramos emerging from his crashed pickup truck, jumping over a fence and walking unobstructed into the school, rifle in hand, and firing a few rounds. (The version of the video released by the committee Sunday omitted views of Ramos.)

The time code from the hallway camera showed police responded three minutes later and headed toward the violence. But rapid shots sent them retreating along the hallway. They remained in that posture for nearly 77 minutes as more law enforcement officers and equipment filled the hallway. At one point, a helmeted officer spritzed his hands with sanitizer from a dispenser.

None of the details released before Sunday did much to ease the pain of survivors, some of whom had sought to rescue their children on May 24 – only to be impeded by law enforcement.

Many of the committee’s conclusions note the same failures included in the report from Texas State, home to a training center for the state’s law enforcement on active-shooter situations. Arredondo and several others had taken the training and knew what was expected.

In the new report, authors add harrowing details. Children were on the playground when Ramos jumped the fence and began firing. Robb Elementary coach Yvette Silva told the committee that she thought Ramos was firing at her. She radioed a warning to the front office about the gunman and then ran toward the group of third-graders, screaming at them to take cover.

“She expected to then hear an announcement of a lockdown, but she did not hear one right away,” the report says.

Several Uvalde police officers responded to the scene within minutes of a shots fired report – including one who said he saw “a man shooting a gun” outside the school but lost track of him as he grabbed his own rifle. Others testified that they weren’t sure where the gunfire was coming from – whether it was from inside or outside the school.

One unnamed officer “saw children dressed in bright colors in the playground, all running away.” That officer then saw a person “dressed in black, also running away.” Believing that person to be the attacker, the officer asked Uvalde Sgt. Daniel Coronado for “permission to shoot.”

But Coronado testified that when heard the request, he “hesitated” after considering the risks of striking a child. The man in black turned out to be Robb Elementary coach Abraham Gonzales, who was running toward the children to urge them to take cover.

The House report intentionally does not name Ramos, but says he was driven by a “desire for notoriety and fame” and that he had displayed signs of mental instability and violent tendencies to family and social media acquaintances. But none of those warning signs were reported to authorities.

Authors detail a troubled childhood, in which Ramos had a strained relationship with his parents and few friends. He struggled academically in part because of a speech impediment and complained of bullying. By the time Ramos reached third grade, school officials had identified him as “at risk because of consistently poor test results,” according to the report, and had suggested speech therapy. But Ramos never received special education.

By 2018, Ramos was averaging more than 100 school absences annually, along with failing grades and poor test scores, according to the report. Officials say there is no evidence that school resource officers ever visited his home. By 2021, at age 17, Ramos had completed only the ninth grade. In late October 2021, about six months before the attack, Uvalde High School “involuntarily withdrew him.”

Ramos took fast-food jobs, including one at a restaurant, and “hoarded money,” according to relatives who thought he was saving up for an apartment or a car. But Ramos told acquaintances he was “saving for something big” and that they would see him in the news someday, the report says.

Near the end of 2021, Ramos began buying supplies including rifle slings and a body armor carrier. The report says he asked two relatives to buy guns for him, but they refused. Relatives were aware of his desire to buy guns before he was legally of age to do so and of his fascination with school shootings. Again, the information was not reported.

The report says that while Ramos had a “vague idea” of carrying out a school shooting in late 2021, his plans were accelerated after a “blowout argument” with his mother this year that was live-streamed on Instagram. Sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene, according to the report, but no arrests were made. Ramos moved in with his grandmother, where he slept on the living room floor.

After similar mass shootings in Texas, the state legislature has pumped money into school safety enhancements and some mental health and counseling programs. But lawmakers have consistently loosened restrictions on guns like the one Ramos used at Robb Elementary. Parents of those killed and injured have called on state and federal leaders to raise the purchase age for high-powered weapons like the one he used, which have become a fixture of mass shootings.

Deadly attacks like the Uvalde rampage routinely prompt after-action reviews, which study what happened, examine how law enforcement responded and highlight lessons that could be learned.

Ever since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, law enforcement officials have been taught to go after gunmen quickly during active attacks to stop the threat, rather than waiting for specialized backup such as SWAT teams.

Confusion amid the chaos of an active attack has also been a recurring theme in some reports. After a gunman opened fire in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport in 2017, killing five people, a review found issues with communications as well as uncertainty about who was in charge.

Law enforcement officials have also faced criticism for their responses. After the Parkland massacre in Florida, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office acknowledged that one of its deputies had been working as a school resource officer but remained outside rather than confronting the shooter.