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School Climate & Safety

‘Cascade of Failures’ in Response to Uvalde School Shooting, Investigation Finds

By Evie Blad — January 18, 2024 6 min read
Attorney General Merrick Garland, right, and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, left, tour murals of shooting victims on Jan. 17, 2024, in Uvalde, Texas.
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Despite a massive, multi-agency law enforcement response, it took police officers 77 minutes to confront an 18-year-old gunman armed with an AR-15 rifle in a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school on May 24, 2022, a review by the U.S. Department of Justice found.

A quicker response would have led to fewer fatalities, noted U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland while unveiling the report Thursday.

“The report concludes that, had law enforcement agencies followed generally accepted practices in an active shooter situation and gone right after the shooter to stop him, lives would have been saved and people would have survived,” Garland said.

The gunman remained inside two conjoining classrooms at Robb Elementary School the entire time, killing two teachers and 19 students as young as nine, and injuring at least 17 people. Meanwhile, heavily armed officers stood just outside the door, some holding ballistic shields.

In all, the response to one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history was marked by “cascading failures of leadership, decision-making, tactics, policy, and training,” including by district-employed police officers, the report concluded.

The most significant lapse: Officers failed to immediately and directly confront the gunman, instead treating him as a “barricaded subject” and working to evacuate children from other classrooms.

“It is now widely understood ... that, in active shooter incidents, time is not on the side of law enforcement,” Garland said in a press conference Thursday. “Every second counts, and the priority of law enforcement must be to immediately enter the room and stop the shooter with whatever tools and weapons they have with them.”

The 600-page report follows an investigation requested by Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin the week of the shooting. Its findings largely echo those of a previous state inquiry into the attack, which spotlighted the need for preparedness and coordination between law enforcement and schools in responding to crisis events.

Investigators reviewed more than 14,100 pieces of data and documentation, “including policies, training logs, body camera and CCTV video footage, audio recordings, photographs, personnel records, manuals and standard operating procedures, interview transcripts and investigative files and data, and other documents,” the report said. Investigators made nine visits totalling 54 days to Uvalde, and they interviewed more than 260 medical staff, family members, and representatives of organizations involved in the response.

Their findings included scrutiny of the district’s own police force and safety plans.

A shift in safety after Columbine shooting

While school safety is an everyday concern for district leaders, mass shootings like the Uvalde attack are less likely than smaller acts of violence. Education Week has verified 65 school shootings that resulted in injuries or deaths since the school shooting at Robb Elementary in May 2022, though most of them were much smaller in scale, and some occurred in parking lots during extracurricular activities.

The deadliest school shooting since the Robb Elementary School event happened at the Covenant School, a church-run Nashville elementary school where an adult former student killed three young children and three adults on March 27, 2023.

That tragedy drew immediate comparisons to Uvalde after body-camera footage from a responding officer showed him immediately running into the building and killing the attacker within 14 minutes of the initial 911 call.

Parents of children killed in Uvalde quickly noted the speed of that response.

The protocol Uvalde officers did not follow—to immediately confront an active shooter—became common, recommended practice after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where it took officers 47 minutes to enter the school, Garland said.

In Uvalde, failure to quickly enter the classrooms, combined with a lack of leadership on site, led to a fumbled response. That was in part because the school district’s safety plan called for its own police chief to take command in a crisis situation. But the Uvalde district police chief at the time, Pete Arredondo, failed to take charge and discarded his radios on arrival, contributing to the chaos, the report found. (Arredondo was later fired.)

City, state, and federal officers from various agencies who reported to the scene told federal investigators they did not know who was in charge, whether or not the suspect was still alive, or what they should do to assist.

And the stalled response continued even as an officer reported his wife, a teacher, had been shot in one of the two adjoining classrooms, and as a student inside called 911 to report the shooting was ongoing, waiting on the line for 16 minutes as officers failed to respond, the report said.

“We hope to honor the victims and the survivors by working together to try to prevent something like this from happening ever again—here or anywhere,” Garland said as he summarized the findings.

Recommendations for schools

The report’s findings encompass many elements, including the work of federal agencies, the city’s medical response, and the conflicting information provided to families on scene.

One chapter details findings related to the Uvalde district and the small school police force it operates. Four years after it was created, the school police force was operating without standard procedures, investigators found.

Among the other district-focused findings:

  • School safety teams met “infrequently” and sometimes relied on outdated information.
  • The district had “a culture of complacency” about keeping doors locked.
  • Responding law enforcement officers struggled to locate keys to unlock interior classrooms for more than 40 minutes.

School police departments should create agreements with other local agencies to detail how they will cooperate in crisis situations and who will take command, the report recommends.

Campus safety plans should include drills that allow various law enforcement agencies to prepare and test protocols, investigators recommend. And schools should ensure that educators have a consistent understanding of various security alerts and lockdown procedures.

Response from grieving families

The district has updated its safety protocols and hired new officers since the 2024 attack, and local prosecutors have said they will explore criminal charges related to the incident response.

Velma Lisa Duran, whose sister Irma Garcia was one of the teachers killed, told The Associated Press Thursday that she was grateful for the federal agency’s investigation but disappointed that local prosecutors have yet to bring any charges.

“A report doesn’t matter when there are no consequences for actions that are so vile and murderous and evil,” said Duran. “What do you want us to do with another report? ... Bring it to court.”

Garland met with victims’ families and survivors and visited murals in Uvalde before releasing the findings. And Uvalde Superintendent Ashley Chohlis sent a letter to families earlier in the week to prepare them for the fresh wave of public attention.

“As a parent or staff member, you have the right to choose whether or not to review the report,” she wrote. “We encourage you to prepare yourself and your family for any potential emotional response that may come from reading the information.”

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