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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘I don’t feel safe.’ Children fear going back to school in Uvalde

A newly installed security fence surrounded Dalton Elementary School as the new school year approached, after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.

By Edgar Sandoval

With a little more than two weeks left before the beginning of the school year, Tina Quintanilla-Taylor drove her 9-year-old daughter, Mehle, past the new school where she was supposed to start fourth grade.

The school is just a mile or so away from the one she attended last year, Robb Elementary School, now permanently closed after a gunman’s shooting rampage left 19 students and two teachers dead. The new school looked clean and welcoming, but Mehle and her mother said they felt uneasy. There were no police officers visible, Mehle said. The newly installed fencing, she said, looked “skinny” and easy to climb.

“I don’t feel safe,” she told her mother.

Quintanilla-Taylor has decided to enroll her daughter in online classes approved by the state, as have many other parents in Uvalde, where the trauma of the May 24 shooting still lingers after a summer of mourning. Some parents said they are also considering private schools, including one operated by Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which began the new school year Aug. 15 with double its enrollment from last year for students in prekindergarten through sixth grade.

“They are not ready for the new school year,” Quintanilla-Taylor said. “Nobody feels safe going back to school.”

Parents have been confronting school board members at meetings to demand answers about the flawed police response to the shooting and new security measures to keep students safe at school.

A legislative committee that investigated the attack found serious deficiencies in the school’s readiness for a mass shooting, including internal and external doors that were left unlocked, contrary to school protocols, and a 5-foot exterior fence that the gunman was able to easily climb over.

The committee also found “systemic failures and egregiously poor decision making” on the part of the police officers who waited more than an hour to take down the gunman. Investigators for the Texas Department of Public Safety said the chief of the school district police force, Pete Arredondo, acting as incident commander over the flawed response, failed to follow standard law enforcement training that could have ended the attack more quickly and saved lives.

The school board has scheduled a hearing Wednesday during which it plans to fire Arredondo, who has been on unpaid leave since late July. Parents have expressed frustration at the length of that process, and many said they had been given little assurance that the district was equipped to prevent a similar tragedy.

Officials with the school district said the start of the school year had been delayed until Sept. 6, later than neighboring districts, to ensure students felt safe attending classes in person. The district said it was fortifying campuses with new 8-foot fences, security cameras, replacement door locks and additional police officers. Gov. Greg Abbott said he had assigned more than 30 state troopers to provide extra security.

With plans to eventually demolish Robb Elementary, the school district is installing portable classrooms at other schools to accommodate students, while online classes will be available for those who do not feel ready to return in person.

“We are making progress,” Hal Harrell, the superintendent, told parents in a video message that outlined the new safety measures. “These are components that will be installed throughout the district, not just in one campus or two campuses.”

But many parents said that the process of installing the new security equipment had been slow, and that they do not trust that it will all be ready on time.

The trauma remains fresh for those who survived the worst school massacre since the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a decade ago, and many of the families spent the summer organizing to demand more accountability from their local officials. In early July, hundreds of people marched from the Robb Elementary campus to the town square to demand the firing of police officers who led the flawed response, and also to call for stricter gun laws and better school safety measures.

More than a dozen residents have formed a group, Uvalde Strong for Gun Safety, to advocate stronger gun control legislation and safer schools. During a recent meeting, one of the group’s leaders, Dr. Roy Guerrero, a pediatrician who testified before Congress about the devastating injuries he saw that day, reminded parents that they were within their rights to keep their children out of school.

“Do not send them and we’ll see what happens, agreed? This is how you are going to respond to them. Don’t even send them virtually,” Guerrero told them. “That’s what I tell every single one of my patients.”

Quintanilla-Taylor, the mother of the 9-year-old who plans to take online courses starting this week, has joined the chorus of families who have demanded to know why it has taken so long to fire Arredondo.

Harrell, the superintendent, recommended his firing in July, but the school board has repeatedly delayed taking action, in part because of the chief’s requests for postponements.

“His lack of action led to the loss of lives,” Quintanilla-Taylor said. “They should have fired him a long time ago. He took an oath. He failed that oath.”

That sentiment is shared by many others in town, including Arnulfo Reyes, a teacher at Robb Elementary who feels lucky to be alive after being shot twice and taunted for more than an hour by the gunman as officers stood idle in a nearby hallway.

In this small town of 15,000, where many people are related, it was not an unusual twist of fate that Arredondo would be Reyes’ cousin. But that has not changed Reyes’ view of what should happen. “I think he needs to go first. Fire him and the rest will follow like a domino. We need accountability,” Reyes said.

School district officials have declined to say how many students will be returning to in-person classes at other campuses, and how many have elected to take classes online.

Cynthia Herrera is one of several parents who said they were closely monitoring the district’s progress in making safety improvements. The 10-year-old stepson she raised since he was 3, Jose, was killed in the shooting. Her daughter, Andrea, 10, has been left traumatized, she said.

Bullets had entered Andrea’s classroom through the walls; the little girl recalled seeing a teacher shot moments before Andrea climbed through a window to safety.

Herrera said there were safety issues at the school that came to light even before the shooting. Reyes, Jose’s teacher, reported two months before the attack that the lock on his classroom door lock was faulty, but it was never fixed.

The state legislative report noted that teachers and other staff members sometimes used rudimentary tools, such as rocks, wedges and magnets, to prevent doors from completely shutting and automatically locking, a practice that was discouraged by the school police to no avail.

“I just pray that they learned their lesson and that they will keep our children safe,” Herrera said about the school district.

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