The Uvalde shooting renews questions about school security

John Burnett, Marisa Peñaloza | May 28, 2022
Alexandria Rubio's cross stands Friday at a memorial site for the victims killed in this week's shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Alexandria Rubio’s cross stands Friday at a memorial site for the victims killed in this week’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Dario Lopez-Mills | AP
Updated May 28, 2022 at 12:13 PM ET

UVALDE, Texas — Tuesday was a busy, happy morning at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. It was the end of the school year, the children who had made the honor roll were being recognized and parents had come to school for the occasion.

“My granddaughter and her husband were there,” says a retired Baptist pastor, Julian Moreno, “and Lexi had gotten the award for being a straight-A honor student.”

Moreno’s great-granddaughter, Alexandria “Lexi” Rubio — who at 10 had already dreamed of going to law school at a university in San Antonio — would not survive that day. She was one of the 19 children who would be executed later that morning in her fourth-grade classroom by a high school dropout armed with an assault-style weapon that he purchased days after he turned 18.

The mass murder of innocents in Uvalde has raised critical questions about school security. How do you harden schools without turning them into fortresses? In Uvalde, angry residents want to know how their vaunted school security plan failed, allowing the worst mass school shooting in Texas history.

Like other states in this dark era of school shootings, Texas has reviewed and tightened security protocols again and again.

Today, schools — mammoth and tiny — have had to adopt far-reaching security measures. Texas requires active-shooter drills, behavioral threat assessments to identify violent students, and detailed emergency operation plans that are audited every three years. Locked doors — known as access control— are strongly recommended, but not mandated.

Police officers walk past a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Thursday.
Police officers walk past a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Thursday. Chandan Khanna | AFP via Getty Images

At Robb Elementary, the assailant, Salvador Ramos, found an open back door, ran inside, barricaded himself in a classroom, and started killing.

“Obviously something fell through the cracks,” says a grief-stricken Julian Moreno. “Something failed somewhere along the way.”

What went wrong?

First, the outside back door and the classroom doors were unlocked.

“At 11:27, we have video evidence that the exterior door where we knew the shooter Ramos entered was propped open by a teacher,” Steve McCraw, director of Texas Department of Public Safety, told reporters Friday. He said the teacher had gone to her car to get her cellphone.

Second, there was the police response. McCraw acknowledged that 19 law enforcement officers were in the hallway outside the classroom where the gunmen had locked himself in with the fourth-graders and their teachers.

As a terrified student inside the classroom whispered into a cellphone on a 911 call begging police to rescue them, the police inside the school waited for more than an hour before a Border Patrol tactical team finally arrived. The federal officers stormed the classroom and killed Ramos. The chief of the school police department called for the delay, McCraw said, because he thought the gunman was barricaded and the children were no longer at risk.

“From the benefit of hindsight where I’m sitting now, of course, it was not the right decision,” McCraw said. “It was the wrong decision. Period. No excuse for that.”

The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District has posted on its website a page titled Preventative Security Measures to reassure parents. It was there before the shooting. A list of 21 security procedures begins with the school police department and its four officers. Other measures include threat assessment teams, social media monitoring, campus fences, and locked classrooms at all times.

All, apparently, failed. Uvalde Schools is not speaking to the media at this time to discuss its safety protocols.

“You can have the best plan in place and you can train and drill to that plan, but that’s definitely not going to stop evil from coming in,” says Kathy Martinez-Prather, director of the Texas School Safety Center, located at Texas State University in San Marcos. That is the central clearinghouse for training, research and technical assistance for Texas schools and community colleges.

“We can’t prevent these events from happening 100% of the time,” she continues, “but we can prevent them from happening in the majority of cases.” A school may not be able to keep out a determined gunman, who may shoot out windows to gain entry, but she says it’s important to always have the doors locked “because what it does is it creates a time barrier.”

Martinez-Prather says Texas got serious about protecting schools after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado where 13 were killed. The state doubled down again after the 2018 mass killing at Santa Fe High School, near Houston that left 10 dead.

Texas officials boast that they’ve invested $100 million in recent years for districts to enhance school security. Yet Texas Republicans, who control state government, after mass shootings have repeatedly refused to enact any restrictions on acquiring firearms.

Martinez-Prather wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the Uvalde tragedy, but she said even if it’s a special day at a school, and parents are coming in and out, the best practice “is to have all exterior perimeter doors locked and have a single point of entry with someone monitoring that entrance point before you admit someone into the school.”

Other school safety experts disagree that a single entrance is practical, given that some schools have separate, portable buildings and large schools with thousands of children would mean long lines going into the main building.

Just down the highway from Uvalde lies the little town of Sabinal — home of the annual Sabinal Wild Hog Festival and the Sabinal Independent School District.

Sabinal School Superintendent Richard Grill points out a bleeding control kit at Sabinal High School. Visitors to Sabinal schools have to ring a bell and show identification via a camera before they are allowed inside.
Sabinal School Superintendent Richard Grill points out a bleeding control kit at Sabinal High School. Visitors to Sabinal schools have to ring a bell and show identification via a camera before they are allowed inside. John Burnett | NPR

When Sabinal School Superintendent Richard Grill first heard about the Uvalde school massacre, the first thing he did was weep. Sabinal and Uvalde schools have close ties.

“You don’t stay in this business very long if you don’t care about kids and we’re all brothers and sisters in education,” Grill says. “You worry about your teachers. I can imagine what it would be like and the terror that they would be going through.”

The next thing Grill did was put his 500 students on lockdown, in an abundance of caution. Then he walked around all three campuses and tried every exterior door to make sure they were locked tight.

The district is so small that the superintendent is also the emergency operations director. He has no campus cops.

On a shoestring budget — much smaller than Uvalde’s — Grill has done the best he can to harden his schools against an active shooter: single entryways, magnetic locking doors, bright-red emergency buttons that alert local police, and trauma kits in the corridors. Visitors to Grill’s schools have to ring a bell and show identification via a camera before they are allowed inside.

“We have tourniquet packages, wound dressings, blood coagulators,” he says, pointing out a bleeding control kit, which is not far from the Sabinal Yellowjackets football trophies. “We do an awesome job of training our staff with stop-the-bleed.”

For every school administrator in Texas — indeed, in America — Tuesday was a “there, but for the grace of God go I” moment. In small towns where everybody knows each other, and where folks often leave their doors unlocked and their keys in their vehicles, complacency is a constant threat to school security.

Grill says that when he arrived at Sabinal schools as the superintendent in 2008, there was a much more relaxed attitude. People would say, “Oh, Mr. Grill, this is a safe place. You’re worrying too much,” he remembers. “And I said, ‘Well we’re going to change that.’ ”

A local resident holds a sign Wednesday honoring the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.
A local resident holds a sign Wednesday honoring the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Chandan Khanna | AFP via Getty Images

So he instituted security upgrades that he hopes and prays will prevent every administrator’s nightmare.

Grill says the state can send the schools the finest training manuals, but “If you don’t read the darn thing … if you don’t internalize it and make it operational, you don’t do it.”

In the wake of the Uvalde school shooting, many schools will reexamine their emergency operations procedures. And if they have school-based police they may beef up tactical training for officers.

Then comes the most important thing: The schools have to put them in practice.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Thank you for joining us. The mass murder of innocents in Uvalde, Texas, has raised critical questions about school security. How do you harden schools without turning them into fortresses? How do you keep students and teachers safe in classrooms, in gymnasiums and football stadiums? In Uvalde, people want to know how their vaunted school security plan failed, allowing the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. NPR’s John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Tuesday was a busy, happy morning at Robb Elementary School. The children who’d made the honor roll were being recognized, and their parents had come to school for the occasion. A retired Baptist pastor, Julian Moreno, says his great-granddaughter Lexi was one of the honorees.

JULIAN MORENO: My granddaughter and her husband were there. And Lexi had gotten the award for being a straight-A honors student.

BURNETT: Lexi Rubio, who at 10 had already dreamed of going to law school in San Antonio, would not survive that day. Like other states in this dark era of school shootings, Texas has reviewed and tightened security protocols again and again. Today, security measures are far-reaching. The state requires active shooter drills, behavioral threat assessments to identify violent students, and detailed emergency operation plans. Locked doors known as access control are strongly recommended, but not mandated. At Robb Elementary, the killer, Salvador Ramos, found an open side door, ran inside, barricaded himself in a classroom, and slaughtered 19 fourth graders and two teachers. Julian Moreno, who is mourning his great-granddaughter, says normally, everyone who enters the school has to sign in.

MORENO: Obviously, something fell through the cracks. Something failed somewhere on the way.

BURNETT: What went wrong?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN MCCRAW: My name is Steven McCraw, director of Texas Department of Public Safety.

BURNETT: McCraw addressed the throng of journalists in Uvalde yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCRAW: At 11:27 – we know from video evidence – the exterior door where we knew the shooter entered – Ramos – was propped open by a teacher.

BURNETT: Moreover, McCraw acknowledged that 19 officers waited for at least 40 minutes outside in the hallway of the school before a Border Patrol tactical team finally arrived. They stormed the classroom and killed Ramos. The delay was the decision of the chief of the school police department because he thought the gunman was barricaded and the children were no longer at risk.

Again, Steve McCraw.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCRAW: Hey, from the benefit of hindsight, where I’m sitting now, and of course it was not the right decision. It was a wrong decision, period. There’s no excuse for that.

BURNETT: The Uvalde Consolidated School District has on its website a page titled preventative security measures to reassure parents. It was there before the shooting. The list of 21 security procedures begins with the school police department that has four officers. Other measures include threat assessment teams, social media monitoring, campus fences and locked classrooms at all times. All apparently failed. Uvalde Schools is not speaking to the media at this time and did not return a call from NPR.

KATHY MARTINEZ-PRATHER: You can have the best plan in place, and you can train and drill to that plan. But that’s definitely not going to stop evil from coming in.

BURNETT: That’s Kathy Martinez-Prather, director of the Texas School Safety Center, the central clearinghouse for training, research and technical assistance for Texas schools and community colleges.

MARTINEZ-PRATHER: We can’t prevent these events from happening 100% of the time, but we can prevent them from happening in the majority of cases.

BURNETT: She says Texas got serious about protecting schools after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado – 13 killed. The state doubled down again after the 2018 mass killing at Santa Fe High School near Houston – 10 dead. Texas officials boast that they’ve invested $100 million in recent years for districts to enhance school security. Yet Texas Republicans, who control the state government, after mass shootings have refused to enact any restrictions on acquiring firearms. Martinez-Prather wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the Uvalde tragedy, but she said even if it’s a special day at a school and parents are coming in and out, best practice…

MARTINEZ-PRATHER: …Is to have all exterior perimeter doors locked and have the single point of entry with someone monitoring that entrance point before you admit someone into the school.

BURNETT: And to have interior classrooms locked at all times.

Just down the highway from Uvalde sits the little town of Sabinal, home of the annual Wild Hog Festival and the Sabinal Independent School District. This is what’s supposed to happen when you try to enter the front door of a high school.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How can I help you?

BURNETT: Yes, we’re two journalists here to see Mr. Grill.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can I please see your identification?

BURNETT: When Sabinal school superintendent Richard Grill first heard about the Uvalde school massacre, the first thing he did was weep. Sabinal and Uvalde schools have close ties.

RICHARD GRILL: You don’t stay in this business very long if you don’t care about kids, and we’re all brothers and sisters in education. So you worry about your teachers. I can imagine what it would be like and the terror that they would be going through.

BURNETT: The next thing Grill did was put his 500 students on lockdown. Then he walked around all three campuses and tried every exterior door to make sure they were all locked tight. The district is so small that the superintendent is also the emergency operations director. There are no campus cops. On a shoestring budget – much smaller than Uvalde’s – Grill has done the best he can to harden his schools against an active shooter – single entryways, magnetic locking doors, bright red emergency buttons that alert local police and trauma kits in the corridors.

GRILL: There’s tourniquet packages, wound dressings, blood coagulators in this device. We do an awesome job of training our staff with Stop the Bleed.

BURNETT: For every school administrator in Texas – indeed, in America – Tuesday was a there but for the grace of God go I moment. In small towns where everybody knows each other, where people often don’t lock their doors and leave their keys in their cars, complacency is a constant issue for school security. Grill says when he arrived at Sabinal Schools in 2008, there was a much more relaxed attitude. Folks would say…

GRILL: Oh, Mr. Grill, this is a safe place. You’re worrying too much.

BURNETT: So he instituted security upgrades that he hopes and prays will prevent every administrator’s nightmare. Grill says the state can send the schools the finest training manuals.

GRILL: If you don’t read the darn thing, you don’t know it. If you don’t internalize it and make it operational, you don’t do it.

BURNETT: Back in Uvalde, the grieving goes on. The mother of one of the slain fourth graders, Alithea Ramirez, is surrounded by reporters at a public event. She’s asked, what should happen now?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MOTHER: Just more security in the schools. I just don’t want this to happen again. I don’t want this to happen to other families. I just don’t.

BURNETT: In the wake of the Uvalde school shooting, many schools will reexamine their emergency operations procedures. And if they have school-based police, they may beef up tactical training for officers. Then comes the most important thing – the schools have to put them in practice. John Burnett, NPR News, Uvalde. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.