School Climate & Safety

The Uvalde School Shooting: 4 Key Takeaways for Educators From the First Inquiry

By Evie Blad — July 18, 2022 8 min read
Rachel Martinez carries her son and a protest sign as she attends a city council meeting in Uvalde, Texas. A preliminary report into the shooting that killed 19 students and two teacher at Robb Elementary School Texas lawmaker says surveillance video from the school hallway at Robb Elementary School where police waited as a gunman opened fire in a fourth-grade classroom will be shown this weekend to residents of Uvalde.
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A preliminary investigation into the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting that killed 21 people focused largely on a faulty law enforcement response to the May 24 attack, but also found problems with school security procedures that may be very familiar to educators around the country.

Among those issues: Teachers frequently struggled to lock doors in the aging Robb Elementary School building including on the day of the attack, and communications for both educators and law enforcement were difficult because of patchy cellphone and Wi-Fi coverage, according to a report released by a special committee of the Texas legislature Sunday.

In addition, building lockdown alerts had become so frequent that some staff may not have realized there was an imminent threat when they were told to keep students in classrooms during the attack, the committee found.

The alleged gunman, a teenager and former student at Robb Elementary School, had dropped out of school after struggling with attendance and poor grades. He had a stutter for which he received no special education services, the report said, and he had no criminal record or significant disciplinary history.

The findings come after weeks of shifting narratives about what happened that day, marked with periodic revelations of significant failures by on-site law enforcement.

Here are some notable findings and context for educators.

A failed police response, despite advanced planning with the school district

Although 376 law enforcement officers responded to the scene—some carrying ballistic shields and other tactical gear—it took 76 minutes for them to breach the adjoining classrooms where the gunman killed 19 students and two teachers, the committee found.

Although school safety best practices dating back to the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School call for responding to the shooter as quickly as possible, early officers on the scene believed they were in a standoff with a barricaded intruder rather than an ongoing active-shooter situation, the report found. That assumption cost them crucial minutes as they assembled in hallways outside of the classrooms rather than forcing their way in.

Uvalde was “one of the few Texas school districts recognized by the School Safety Center as having submitted a viable active shooter policy” in compliance with a state law passed after the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas, the committee found.

That plan, created in consultation with law enforcement, said the school district’s police chief should serve as incident commander in the event of an attack.

But the chief told the committee he didn’t “label” himself as commander that day. Officers on-site didn’t know who was directing the response, and none took control, the report said.

In addition, the school district’s police chief did not have radios with him, and officers were slow to learn of 911 calls coming from inside the classrooms.

Context for schools around the country: States’ school safety laws increasingly direct school and district leaders to coordinate with local law enforcement and, in some cases, to hold on-site training with police and teachers.

“At least 43 states and the District of Columbia require a school safety plan in statute or regulation,” according to a 2019 analysis by the Education Commission of the States. “At least 29 states and the District of Columbia require law enforcement agencies to be involved in the creation of a school safety plan.”

Even with such training and planning, shootings are fast-moving and unpredictable events that require rapid decision making, school safety experts say. And it can be difficult for education administrators not trained in public safety to ensure planning is adequate.

Frequent Uvalde school lockdowns may have led to less urgency

Frequent campus lockdowns related to community incidents may have “contributed to a diminished sense of vigilance about responding to security alerts” in Uvalde schools, the committee found.

The community, not far from the Mexico border, sat near two busy highways and frequently saw “bailouts,” a term for police pursuits of vehicles full of undocumented migrants, police told the committee. Those incidents had never caused a safety concern in a school, but they sparked lockdowns because they had sometimes led to high-speed chases through parking lots or streets near campuses, creating safety concerns.

Uvalde schools responded to alerts of “about 50" bailout incidents between February and May of 2022, the report said. The district’s Raptor Alert System, an app used to notify adults about building lockdowns and security protocols, “does not differentiate its signals between bailouts and other kinds of alerts, such as an active shooter situation,” the report said.

“The series of bailout-related alerts led teachers and administrators to respond to all alerts with less urgency—when they heard the sound of an alert, many assumed that it was another bailout,” the committee concluded.

Patchy cellphone service in the building also made it difficult for some teachers to receive alerts and to communicate during a crisis, a problem that was also identified after the Santa Fe shooting. And the alert the day of the Uvalde shooting was largely spread via vocal warnings between classrooms.

Context for schools around the country: School safety consultants like Amy Klinger and Amanda Klinger, co-founders of the Educator’s School Safety Network, have long warned that a “normalcy bias” among educators can affect responses to crisis situations.

Normalcy bias refers to the tendency of people to doubt that an unlikely worst-case scenario is actually happening, leading them to disbelieve or downplay warnings. Researchers have identified normalcy bias in responses to events like earthquakes, forest fires, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is not just a concern in Uvalde. A 2018 analysis by the Washington Post found more than 4 million children had endured a non-drill school lockdown in the previous year.

Safety training for educators should touch on normalcy bias, the Klingers have stressed, and clear communication is key in a crisis so that teachers and staff understand the severity of the situation.

Aging buildings, faulty locks, inconsistent protocols

Robb Elementary School had known problems with locks on both interior and exterior doors, several of which were unlocked on the day of the attack, the report said.

The aging building had a dated hardware system that required teachers to lock their doors from the outside using a key. Teachers often propped the doors open or instructed substitute teachers to do so if they did not have keys for the locks, which were limited and no longer in production.

Room 111, where the attack took place, was known for having a faulty hallway door that could not be easily locked, staff members told the committee. And, while teachers had reported that concern to administrators, a work order had not been filed to have it repaired.

“If the door to Room 111 had been locked, the attacker likely would havebeen slowed for some time as he either circumvented the lock or took some other alternative course of action,” the report said.

Context for schools around the country: Some Texas leaders quickly responded to the shooting by calling for more limited access to school buildings.

But Texas already stressed such precautions after the Santa Fe shooting. Nationwide, the most recent federal data show 97 percent of schools already limit access to their buildings during school hours. But such plans are less effective if people prop open school doors, as was the case in Uvalde and at a 2013 Colorado school shooting.

And Uvalde is not alone in having aging school buildings and hardware.

Federal data show that the average U.S. school building was constructed in the 1960s, before architects focused on modern active shooter concerns in their designs. In 2020, the Government Accountability Office found that more than half of school districts nationwide reported the need to replace multiple building systems. And capital spending for schools still falls below pre-recession levels.

Potential warning signs went unreported

The alleged gunman was a former student who dropped out of school at 17, police said. He purchased the guns he used shortly after his 18th birthday the same month as the shootings.

The suspect had no significant history of school discipline or contact with law enforcement, the report said. Some committee interviews and a review of his phone messages suggested he may have struggled with bullying. He had an unstable home life, and he had an apparent stutter for which he did not receive special education services.

There were some warning signs that occurred outside of school: Family members repeatedly refused to buy guns for the suspect when he was underage, and some of the suspect’s online contacts said he referenced plans to do something big and talked frequently about firearms, violent threats, and school shootings. The suspect had shared his thoughts of suicide with a cousin, who believed he did not have a serious intention to act. None of these warning signs were shared with law enforcement.

Context for schools around the country: The U.S. Secret Service has concluded that school shooters often “leak” their intentions beforehand, sharing plans to harm themselves or others with a few friends or family members.

States and school districts around the country have responded to that research by setting up anonymous reporting systems and social media monitoring to detect threats. But an overly punitive approach can stop students from coming forward to share concerns, school safety experts have said. And even trained law enforcement struggle to consistently identify valid threats.

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