School officials in Uvalde, Texas, promised to do everything they could to protect students from a mass shooting.
Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District had doubled its security budget in recent years, according to public documents, in part to comply with state legislation passed in the wake of a 2018 school shooting in which eight students and two teachers were killed. The district adopted an array of security measures that included its own police force, threat assessment teams at each school, a threat reporting system, social media monitoring software, fences around schools and a requirement that teachers lock their classroom doors, according to the security plan posted on the district’s website.
It happened anyway.
Somehow — the account provided by authorities is not entirely clear — a high school dropout with no known criminal history was able to evade a district officer outside Robb Elementary School on Tuesday and enter a back door armed with a rifle. From there the gunman, 18, proceeded down a hallway and into a classroom, where he locked the door and opened fire, authorities said. Nineteen children were killed, along with two teachers. Police and federal agents soon arrived and got a school official to unlock the door, then shot the gunman dead, state and federal law enforcement officials said.
The investigation remains in its early stages, and the school district has not answered questions about how its security plan was implemented. But the death toll suggests that even security plans that appear to be comprehensive and up to the latest research-based standards may have gaps and ultimately fall short of preventing the worst-case scenario, experts said.
“We can do everything we can to mitigate and prevent school shootings but we are never going to stop these events from happening 100 percent of the time, because evil exists,” said Kathy Martinez-Prather, director of the Texas School Safety Center, a program at Texas State University that helps districts develop safety plans and makes sure they are meeting requirements outlined in state laws.
“That said, it is important that we have plans in place, and training and drilling on that plan so that if an event happens at our schools we are ready and prepared to mitigate as much loss of life as possible, or to mitigate it 100 percent.”
The center has done a “high level review” of districts’ plans as part of a periodic check under state legislation passed in 2019; the center also completed a detailed review of Covid-19 safety plans and intends to focus on plans for active threats next, Martinez-Prather said. She declined to comment on any specifics about the district’s security plan, or about the attack itself, beyond saying that the center has not found the district’s plans to be in noncompliance.
But Matthew Mayer, a Rutgers University professor and expert on school violence, said reports that the shooter entered through a back door of the school were a cause for concern.
“For any school, you need to be in control of your entry points,” Mayer said. “That suggests a problem if he could literally come in through a back door, and it wasn’t controlled in some sort of way.”
The Uvalde security plan describes secured entrance systems for two of the district’s schools but not at Robb Elementary specifically. The plan mentions fencing at Robb Elementary “designed to limit and/or restrict access to individuals without a need to be on the campus.”
Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, which trains school officials on ways to protect against attacks, said that many of the measures included in Uvalde’s security plan appeared to meet national best practices, but did not include enough details to determine how well they are implemented.
Very few people have been killed in school shootings behind a locked classroom door, he said.
“All these systems are only as good as the school that’s using them,” Lavarello said.
Lavarello said he often has to convince districts that elementary schools need the same level of security as middle and high schools — a lesson learned from the 2012 shooting at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school in which 20 students and six teachers died.
“Elementary schools are just as vulnerable as any other school,” Lavarello said. “They should be on the same level and in keeping with school safety practices for the rest of the district.”
Authorities have not explained how the shooter got in the back door — or the classroom door, which according to the district’s security plan should have been locked.
The school was holding an awards ceremony Tuesday for students who were just a few days from finishing the school year, which may be one explanation for the open doors. Parents reportedly were coming and going from the school all day.
Leti Ruiz, who has a granddaughter who survived the attack, said the school’s doors, usually locked, were open on Tuesday. “I think that’s why probably the gates were open, because people were coming in and out — parents — for the awards,” Ruiz said.
At a Wednesday news conference, Hal Harrell, superintendent of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, described as heroes the teachers and officers who tried to protect students. In addition to the two teachers killed, more than a dozen other people, including children and law enforcement officers, were injured, officials have said. Harrell did not address the district’s security plan. Neither did law enforcement officials.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said that the Uvalde district “has been doing a really good job in trying to protect their students.”
Patrick said that a 2019 law, passed in the wake of a shooting at high school in Santa Fe, Texas, a year earlier, allocated $100 million for districts to beef up their security measures. But he said more needed to be done — including, perhaps, a way to keep only one entrance available to visitors of small schools.
“No matter what you do, there’s going to be someone to find another area that’s vulnerable,” Patrick said.
School officials, including the district police department, could not be reached Wednesday for comment on the district’s security plan.
Records indicate that Uvalde has taken advantage of added state funding. Spending on school security and monitoring services in Uvalde more than doubled since 2017, rising from about $200,000 to about $435,000 for the current school year, according to the school district’s budget documents. District leadership said in 2020 that the increase in expenditures was due to new school security requirements, according to a finance report.
In 2020, the Texas state government awarded Uvalde a $69,000 grant to be spent on hardening measures, such as metal detectors, barriers, security systems and “campus-wide active shooter alarm systems,” according to state records. The funding was part of the state’s 2019 initiative for physical security upgrades.
In April 2018, a few weeks before the Santa Fe shooting, Uvalde police charged two teenagers for allegedly planning to set off explosives and open fire at the local junior high school in an apparent copy of the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colorado. Officials could not be reached for comment on what came of that case and whether it influenced the district’s security plans.
Uvalde’s school security plan also includes support for and surveillance of students’ emotional health, including programs to report bullying and access to social workers and case managers.
Such measures — sometimes described as a “softening” of schools, in contrast to physical “hardening” — can help reduce violence if implemented properly, and students trust the system enough to report potential threats, Mayer said.
The shooter had a tumultuous home life and signs of troubled behavior, but no known history of mental illness or a criminal record, state officials said. NBC News requested any school reports of bullying or threats involving the shooter, but has yet to receive a response.
Mayer stressed the need to look beyond campus security and embrace more stringent gun laws.
“You could have a school that does everything possible to keep the students safe, but it won’t make any difference if in the larger society we don’t have any changes to gun safety issues,” Mayer said.
Odis Johnson, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, a research group, agreed.
“While we’ve had this ramping up of security measures in public schools, we’ve actually seen an increase in the numbers of injuries and fatalities from school shootings,” Johnson said. “Schools themselves cannot be the only deterrent to gun violence and gun shootings. It will take a more comprehensive approach that includes gun control.”
The Uvalde gunman sent a private Facebook message minutes before the attack saying that he was going to it, Steve McGraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at Wednesday’s news conference. Investigators are looking for earlier signs that might have been missed.
“Obviously, this is a situation where we failed in the sense that we didn’t prevent this mass attack,” McGraw said. “But I can tell you those officers that arrived on the scene and put their lives in danger, they saved other kids.”