At a school board meeting in Uvalde, Texas, this month, parents and administrators engaged in a familiar discussion: It had been nearly a year since a gunman stormed Robb Elementary School, killing 19 children and two teachers. The community was still waiting for the authorities to reveal how it happened.
“Almost a year ago, and to be honest, nothing has changed,” Jesse Rizo, uncle of one of the massacre victims, told the board. “These people are begging you to answer the questions. You came and practically oppressed the people. They ask questions and have no answers.”
Despite the passage of time, there is still a strong disagreement about who should be fired for the slow police response to one of the worst school shootings in US history, and what position the city should take in the face of repeated requests from families. of the victims of restricting weapons. Neighbors who have known each other for years now cannot agree and are more distant than ever.
“We used to be a tight-knit community,” Rizo said after the May 15 school board meeting. “Now it’s like we don’t know each other anymore.”
Bound by grief after the shooting ignited a national storm over how police respond to mass shootings, Uvalde has grown estranged in the painful months since, splitting over rifts that barely existed a year ago.
The fissures run deep and remain open: between the families of the victims, who advocate for stricter gun laws, and the neighbors, who have been avid hunters and longtime gun owners, and reject any new restrictions; between supporters of the police, who are being investigated by the district attorney for their delay in arresting the shooter, and residents who now mistrust police forces; between those who are still in mourning and those who want to move on.
Frictions have come to light at times in a city where everyone shops at the same supermarkets, eats at the same restaurants and attends the same Little League games.
At a recent event held at the library, residents approached the city manager to ask, quietly, when Uvalde could start to move on from the shooting, starting with getting rid of a makeshift altar in memory of the victims of the massacre that he still occupies. the central square. “I’ve had more than one person ask me when we’re going to clean up the plaza,” City Manager Vince DiPiazza said.
There have been other expressions of anger. Relatives of one of the slain boys yelled at the mother of the 18-year-old attacker after passing her by chance on the street last year. A local pastor drew ire for defending the police during a school board meeting last summer. One person asked him to sit down, yelling, “Your time is up!”
“Negativity divides. Everyone gets angry,” said Berlinda Arreola, step-grandmother of one of the victims.
Lingering disagreements and resentments have complicated preparations for the commemoration of Wednesday’s massacre. Authorities asked outsiders to stay away from Uvalde, while relatives of some residents planned a commemorative march through the city.
Cracks have grown even between families. Joe Alejandro, whose niece was killed, found himself at odds with other relatives who have been demanding tougher gun laws, such as raising the age from 18 to 21 to buy an AR-15-style rifle, the type used in the massacre of the last year.
“I have had guns all my life and my guns are not going to kill anyone,” Alejandro said. “This is how we grew up. You go hunting in the morning and you go to school and the guns stay there,” he said, referring to his car. “Why would you go after me for that?”
Alejandro’s view is common in Uvalde, where voters in the largely Hispanic city surrounded by ranches and hunting grounds voted for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott just over five months after the shooting, in a race in which his opponent, Beto O’Rourke, frequently wore a Uvalde baseball cap and had promised stricter gun control.
After more than a hundred students walked out of classrooms last month as part of protests against gun violence, school administrators warned them that they would face the consequences next time.
Long after the shootings, Uvalde is still on edge. City Hall and a large supermarket were recently shut down after residents released images of a man walking downtown with a gun slung over his shoulder. (It turned out to be a BB gun.) Some parents kept their children home for the last full week of school this month due to threats of violence on social media that turned out to be unfounded.
Tensions persist in part because several investigations into the shooting and the police response remain unresolved.
District Attorney Christina Mitchell’s investigation remains open to determine if charges should be brought against any of the officers who waited more than an hour to break into the classroom where the shooter was hiding with the students and kill him. Mitchell noted that she has intent to present any evidence of crime before a grand jury. However, that is likely to be many months away.
“A case of this magnitude must be deliberated, carefully and cannot be rushed,” he explained in a statement. “Because I have seen cases that are quickly investigated and justice does not prevail in them.”
A medical study has yet to be completed to determine if a quicker confrontation with the attacker could have saved any of the children. The Justice Department is also continuing to investigate the police response. Vanita Gupta, the department’s third-highest-ranking official, visited Uvalde last month to meet with officials and families, reassuring them that the investigation was ongoing, even if the results were not yet known.
The department has helped city officials connect with people in other cities torn apart by mass shootings in order to share some kind of grim new manual for navigating the long and painful aftermath. “That reinforced in my mind that what was happening here is not unusual,” DiPiazza said.
Much of the frustration has been directed at school administrators, who oversee the school district’s small police force. The head of that force, Pete Arredondo, was immediately pointed out by the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Steve McCraw, for not quickly confronting the shooter.
However, a subsequent report by a Texas House of Representatives committee found “systemic failures” in the police response, not only by Arredondo, but also by other agencies, such as the state Department of Public Safety and the city Police Department, which also participated in the response. Arredondo and Juan Maldonado, a state police sergeant who was on the scene, were fired, and the officer who had served as head of the city Police Department at the time of the massacre resigned.
The school district revamped its Police Department, but the hiring of a new school police chief has not eased tensions. When a parent of two questioned the qualifications of the newly hired police officer during a recent school board meeting, the district responded by banning him from school facilities for two years.
A letter signed by the new interim superintendent, Gary Patterson, called the father’s actions disruptive and concerning.
In addition to the school police chief, the district has hired three officers and hopes to recruit several more. “We are being very careful and trying to hire the right type of person,” Patterson said in an interview. “Our Police Department is the most scrutinized in the world right now.”
The school building where the shooting took place now stands behind a chain-link fence, with the windows boarded up, ready to undergo a scheduled demolition. The sign on a corner of campus has become a sort of sanctuary, visited by relatives of victims and passing motorists, and students have been sent to other schools until a new building can be built.
Before the shooting, the most prominent mural downtown had been the one bearing the town’s name, images of its history, and Texas’ earlier claim to fame as “the honey capital of the world.” Now, several streets and alleys are adorned with towering images of the fourth graders and their teachers who were murdered, an inevitable reminder of the city’s forever altered identity.
From the first hours after the shooting, it was clear that the massacre would test the unity of the community. On the night of May 24, the relatives of the victims had gathered in a hospital waiting for news of their children when the mother of the attacker entered.
His mother, the gunman’s grandmother, had been the first victim, shot in the face before the gunman headed for the school. She has since recovered.
Arreola, the step-grandmother of Amerie Jo Garza, who was killed, recalled being stunned when the gunman’s mother showed up. “I just wanted you to know that it was my son who killed his children, and I am very sorry,” Arreola recalled her telling him.
When Arreola and other family members saw the woman on the street two months later, in July, Arreola was furious. “What reason was she?” she screamed, in a captured scene by a camera crew for the Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo.
The gunman’s mother could be seen calling 911 for help and also addressing next of kin. “I know my son was a coward, do you think I don’t?” she said. “Do you think I don’t carry all that with me? I know. And I’m sorry”.
On a recent night, dozens of parents gathered to watch Little League games as the sun set over a city park. Clouds crept overhead, delivering a light drizzle.
“Life goes on,” said Lupe Leija, who works in construction and is also on the league’s board of directors. “But there is still anger.”
She said her son was at Robb Elementary School during the shooting and refused to sleep alone for two months afterward. Now, she said, her son and others would come to the games, just trying to regain a sense of normalcy. “Lots of people come here to relax,” she said. “People just want to feel comfortable. They want to feel peace.”
Under the lights, the umpires call balls and strikes. Parents sit on folding chairs or stand and cheer on their children. According to Leija, some nights Maldonado, the former state police sergeant, is also there. Nobody pays much attention to it.
“He was fired from his job,” Leija said. “What else do you want?”.
Kirsten Noyes collaborated with the investigation.
Edgar Sandoval is a reporter for the National section, where he writes about the people and places of South Texas. He was previously a reporter for newspapers in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania and Florida. He is the author of The New Face of Small Town America. @edjsandoval
J. David Goodman is the Houston bureau chief and covers Texas. He has written about government, criminal justice and the role of money in politics for The Times since 2012.
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