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UVALDE — When the Uvalde school board fired embattled police Chief Pete Arredondo on Wednesday, families and friends of the victims of Texas’ deadliest school shooting broke out in applause. After three months, families got some sense of closure.
But, as applause faded, shouts of “We’re not done” began.
Parents and community members aren’t resting in the aftermath of Arredondo’s firing, as anger persists throughout a town in mourning. Many have organized with specific goals in mind: They want to hold more people at the school district accountable for safety and transparency issues, including the school board and Superintendent Hal Harrell. And, in a recognition that even a perfect police response might not have saved many lives on the day of the shooting, they are putting pressure on politicians in Austin to raise the minimum age at which a person can obtain an assault rifle.
Vicente Salazar, whose granddaughter Layla Salazar was killed in the attack, said the fight for accountability and justice hasn’t ended. He wants to see the Uvalde County Sheriff's Office held accountable, criminal charges filed against Arredondo and a change of Republican leadership that has been in control in Texas.
“Getting fired is one thing, but having justice is another thing,” Salazar said. “We need new leadership in Texas so we can have change.”
Some families affected by the shooting have banded together to form LivesRobbed, an organization that will focus on “civic engagement, education and direct action around the impacts of gun violence.”
Salazar said the shooting has alerted people about who their elected officials are, what they do, how they do it and who they do business with.
“Uvalde right now is wrapped around a buddy system. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” Salazar said. “People have to gather together and vote the right way, but they got to vote from the heart, not from their pocketbooks.”
Much of that activism has centered around gun laws. On Saturday, Uvalde families and people who survived the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School will rally in Austin to demand Gov. Greg Abbott call a special legislative session to raise to 21 the minimum age for purchasing an AR-15.
“With kids across Texas returning to school in the coming weeks, Abbott’s inaction is unconscionable,” read a joint statement from Uvalde parents and March For Our Lives, a student-led gun control group that emerged after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. “Every day he doesn’t take action is another day he gambles with our lives.”
A Texas House investigative report on the shooting concluded that it’s impossible to know whether a faster law enforcement response would have saved any lives in the shooting, given how the 18-year-old gunman fired the majority of his rounds from his AR-15 before police arrived inside the school.
Since May, politicians like state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, whose district includes Uvalde, and Abbott’s 2022 opponent, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, have repeatedly called for raising the purchase age for such a powerful weapon, to no avail.
Abbott said in a statement Thursday that the “first step for accountability on behalf of the victims, their families, and the Uvalde community” came with the firing of Arredondo. He said there must be accountability at all levels.
“This is a good start, but there is more work to be done,” Abbott said. “The investigations being conducted by the Texas Rangers and the FBI are ongoing, and we look forward to the full results being shared with the victims’ families and the public, who deserve the full truth of what happened that tragic day.”
When asked about legislative actions such as raising the minimum age to acquire a gun, Abbott believes “all options remain on the table,” and more will be unveiled as the Legislature debates solutions, his press secretary, Renae Eze, said.
Daniel Myers, an Uvalde resident, said he still believes more people in Uvalde need to get involved. There was a great turnout for Arredondo’s hearing on Wednesday night, but it’s a lot of the same people.
“I honestly believe that auditorium ought to pack out because the other families got children that are going to go to the schools that these police officers are going to be patrolling,” Myers said. “You would think they would pack that place up.”
Arredondo, a longstanding community member of Uvalde, graduated from the district high school. His father was born in the small, mostly Hispanic town of about 15,000 people. He worked for the city police department for 16 years, left and then came back to Uvalde two years ago to captain the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District’s police force.
Many have placed much of the blame for the fumbled response to the shooting at his feet. Police took more than an hour to breach the classrooms where the shooter holed up, even as children and teachers were dying inside. Experts have said that Arredondo, as one of the first responders on the scene and chief of the police department with jurisdiction over the school, should have taken command of the scene and moved faster.
In a 17-page statement released minutes before Wednesday night’s meeting, Arredondo’s lawyer insisted that the chief never retreated on the scene and did what he felt was most prudent given the information he had.
“Any allegation of lack of leadership is wholly misplaced. The complaint that an officer should have rushed the door, believed to be locked, to open it up without a shield capable of stopping an AR-15 bullet, without breaching tools, are all reasonable expectations, when they are wholly unreasonable actions as it is tantamount to suicide,” wrote his lawyer, George Hyde, who added that none of the 375 other officers on the scene urged him to respond differently.
Diana Olvedo-Karau, a lifelong Uvalde resident, said every single law enforcement officer who was in Robb Elementary and did not break into the classroom sooner needed to be fired. And she said she believes that the superintendent, Harrell, needs to be terminated, too. She pointed to details in the House report that suggested there was a culture of complacency when it came to school safety and reports of locks not working at Robb Elementary.
“Why did he not know there were issues with doors and keys and locks and people not following policy at the campus level?” Olvedo-Karau said.
According to the House report, multiple witnesses said employees often left interior and exterior school doors unlocked, while teachers would use rocks, wedges and magnets to prop them open. This was partly because of a shortage of keys.
But the head custodian testified he never heard of any problems with the classroom door the shooter entered before opening fire, and maintenance records during the school year do not contain any work orders for it.
Olvedo-Karau said the community should focus on holding Lt. Mariano Pargas responsible for that day as well. Pargas was the acting city police chief the day of the shooting and was suspended in July.
Gutierrez, the state senator, said after the meeting Wednesday that accountability needs to go beyond local school officers to the county sheriff and the Texas Department of Public Safety, who also were present at Robb Elementary the day of the shooting.
Jesse Rizo, whose niece Jackie Cazares was killed in the shooting, said he is hoping criminal charges are brought against Arredondo and some sort of accountability for every officer who was in Robb Elementary.
“There’s not a whole lot to debate,” Rizo said. “You look at someone that didn’t do their job, didn’t follow their protocol there and you simply hold them accountable.”
Rizo said he also believes Abbott didn’t do enough for the grieving community nor did he spend enough time in Uvalde.
“I totally understand that you’re busy, but get to know the families and get to feel what they’re going through and the struggles that they’re going through,” he said.
In a statement, Abbott said he has visited Uvalde over the past several weeks, “meeting individually with over 30 victims’ families” and he remains in contact with local leaders.
But Rizo noted that a special legislative session hasn’t been called. He said the best thing people can do is vote and that right now, the threat of O’Rourke potentially beating Abbott is a form of accountability, he said.
“It’s not until they see that there’s an army of people that are going to come and vote that they can begin to see that there’s a wave coming,” he said.
The full program is now LIVE for the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of 100+ mind-expanding conversations coming to TribFest, including the inside track on the 2022 elections and the 2023 legislative session, the state of public and higher ed at this stage in the pandemic, why Texas suburbs are booming, why broadband access matters, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and so much more. See the program.