Teachers and students at Robb Elementary School were aware of safety protocols when an 18-year-old with an AR-15-style rifle entered the building in May. Dozens of times over the previous four months, the campus had been locked down or issued security alerts.
Not because of active shooter alerts — because of nearby, often high-speed pursuits of migrants coming across the US-Mexico border.
An entire generation of college students in America grew up simulating lockdowns for active shooters, or worse, experiencing the real thing. But in South Texas, another unique kind of classroom lockdown is happening along the state’s 1,200-mile southern border: Hiding because Border Patrol agents or state police State prosecute migrants who attempt to escape apprehension.
The frequency of lockdowns and security alerts at Uvalde — nearly 50 between February and May alone, according to school officials — is now seen by investigators as one of the tragic contributors to how a gunman was able to walk into a fourth grade classroom unobstructed and slaughter 19 children and two teachers. Although a slow and sloppy police response remains the main setback, a damning new report from the Texas House says the recurring blockades in Uvalde have created a “diminished sense of vigilance”.
With a new school year just weeks away from the heavily patrolled South Texas, there are fears that closures could resume and further traumatize students scarred at Uvalde as migrant crossings remain high and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, continues to expand a massive border security operation.
“That’s probably what it was, just convenience, because it happens frequently,” said Uvalde County Justice of the Peace Eulalio “Lalo” Diaz Jr., who was to identify the bodies of the dead at Robb Elementary.
The new findings that a lockdown culture in Uvalde played some role in the May 24 failures reflect how one of the worst school shootings in US history intersected with the policies of immigration and thousands of Border Patrol agents, members of the National Guard and state police tasked with apprehending migrants and arresting drug traffickers. Of the nearly 400 law enforcement officers at the Robb Elementary scene, more than half were Border Patrol or State Police officers, according to the report.
On Tuesday, in the space of just 20 minutes, eight State Police vehicles and Border Patrol SUVs rolled through Uvalde’s central plaza, less than a mile from Robb Elementary.
Uvalde is about an hour’s drive from the border with Mexico, located at the crossroads of two major national highways. Nearby are the towns of Pearsall, Dilley and Karnes – all of which have immigration detention centers with some of the highest populations in the country. More than 4,500 total inmates were at the three facilities as of June 2022, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Jazmin Cazares, whose 9-year-old sister Jacklyn was among the students killed, told Texas lawmakers in June that no one in the school district had taken the closures seriously “until this day.” She said she was now terrified of returning for her senior year. in autumn.
“Will I survive it? Incredible,” Cazares said.
Even the first officers on the scene at Robb Elementary wondered if the threat was a so-called “bailout” – the term used by law enforcement along the border to describe suspected migrants or drug traffickers. who fled. Pete Arrendondo, the embattled Uvalde school police chief who became the target of angry demands from parents to resign or be fired, told the House committee the thought crossed his mind because it happens so often.
The shooter entered Robb Elementary at 11:33 a.m. A minute earlier, according to the report, a fourth grade teacher in room 105 received a lock alert and made sure her classroom door was locked. This teacher also told the committee that she saw a teacher across the hall lock the door to room 112, one of two adjoining rooms where the shooting occurred.
The shooter is believed to have entered the classroom through room 111, which was known to have difficulty locking properly.
The signal sent by the school’s alert system does not specify the potential threat. And because of the prevalence of lockdowns in recent months, the report said, many teachers and administrators “assumed it was another bailout.”
“Bailouts” have become an increasingly common part of the Uvalde vernacular over the past year as the area has become extremely busy with migrants crossing illegally, largely from countries other than the Mexico and northern Central America.
The Border Patrol sector based in Del Rio, Texas – one of nine along the Mexican border – was the busiest corridor for illegal crossings in June, replacing the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. For much of the year, the two southern Texas sectors saw similar numbers of border encounters, well ahead of others in California, Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas.
While many migrants make their way to Border Patrol in the border towns of Del Rio and Eagle Pass – each about an hour’s drive from Uvalde – many seek to evade capture for hours or days, hiding in “hiding places” or in large fields of corn and other crops for the smugglers to pick up at a prearranged location for the trip to San Antonio.
The committee’s report said there had been no incidents of “bailout-related” violence on Uvalde school campuses prior to the shooting. High-speed driving sometimes crossed school parking lots, according to the report, which also said some chases involved firearms in surrounding neighborhoods.
Diaz, Uvalde’s justice of the peace, serves as a magistrate when police make arrests in the area as part of the governor’s massive border mobilization known as Operation Lone Star. It sets bail for those arrested for suspected human or drug trafficking, but also for crimes unrelated to national security, such as minor drug charges.
He said Abbott’s operation didn’t make Uvalde any safer.
“These people coming in don’t want to be in Uvalde,” Diaz said. “They are looking to get away from the border and we are too close.”
Over the past decade, many police departments have stopped engaging officers in car chases because they pose a danger to the public. A 2017 Justice Department report found that between 1996 and 2015, police chases killed an average of 355 people a year, nearly a third of them in vehicles not involved in the chases.
Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin, who said he hadn’t spoken to Abbott in nearly a month, called on the governor to do even more at the border to limit migrant crossings. With classes due to resume in less than two months, he worries about ‘bailouts by schools and so on’ and said ‘it has to stop’.
Angie Villescaz, who grew up in Uvalde and after the shooting founded the Latin mothers’ advocacy group Fierce Madres with local mothers, said borderline rhetoric is a distraction, the most pressing issue.
“They always wanted to keep the narrative about securing the border,” Villescaz said, “and now they can’t because it’s about securing our schools.”
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.
Read more about the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas: https://apnews.com/hub/uvalde-school-shooting