Innocents lost: Uvalde attack leaves broken lives, fractured public trust in law enforcement

Like any campus approaching the end of a school year, Robb Elementary was abuzz with excitement and anticipation.

There were field trips, a ceremony to honor the best in class and a “Footloose and Fancy” day for the young students to show off favorite outfits and “fun” shoes.

During an effusive video address to the entire school district last week, Superintendent Hal Harrell’s only concern appeared to be for the uncertain late spring weather threatening outdoor graduation ceremonies in the small community set on the edge of the famed Texas Hill Country.

That same day, May 20, an 18-year-old high school dropout visited a local gun shop and purchased the second of two assault-style rifles. Both weapons would be tagged as evidence days later, following a shooting that left 19 Robb students and two teachers dead, and a country grappling with the ramifications of yet another episode of horrific slaughter.

People leave the Uvalde Civic Center following a shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.
People leave the Uvalde Civic Center following a shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.
Until Tuesday, Uvalde’s brush with the national spotlight was largely confined to its most famous resident: John Nance ‘Cactus Jack’ Garner, a one-time Speaker of the House and vice president to Franklin Roosevelt whose resting place is not far from a ribbon of Highway 90 that cuts a well-traveled path between San Antonio and the Mexican border.

Before sunset, Uvalde had joined a growing list of communities now infamous after its innocence was buried forever by another mass shooting in America.

What joins Uvalde to places like Stockton, California; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Littleton, Colorado, Red Lake, Minnesota; Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania; Blacksburg, Virginia; Newtown, Connecticut; and Parkland, Florida during the past quarter-century of campus attacks is a timeline charting a deadly collision between attacker and unsuspecting victims.

But what has now cast a further pall over this small Texas community is an acknowledged catastrophic failure by law enforcement on the scene not to immediately storm adjoining classrooms that a heavily-armed Salvador Ramos had transformed into a killing field, even as terrified students inside placed repeated 911 calls pleading for help and frantic parents outside begged officers to let them by to save their children.

Instead, Texas Department of Public Safety chief Steven McCraw said Friday that the local school district’s police chief — who had been the on-scene commander during the shooting — waited on reinforcements for more than an hour, a decision that may have cost more young lives and now threatens to fracture public confidence in law enforcement’s capacity to guard the community’s most vulnerable.

The breakdown immediately recalled past missteps by law enforcement that have haunted responses to similar deadly attacks.

“With the benefit of hindsight, of course, it was the wrong decision,” a shaken McCraw told reporters Friday, adding that an investigation would attempt to determine how many died while 19 officers waited in a hallway outside the locked classroom doors where Ramos continued shooting. “There is no excuse for that.”

‘A real happy little girl’
Tuesday was going to be a special day at Robb Elementary School. Amerie Jo Garza, 10, dressed up in a favorite white print top, pink nail polish, gold earrings and swept her long black hair back in a ponytail.

It would be the third-to-last day of school before the long summer break. But more importantly, the students in Eva Mireles’ and Irma Garcia’s fourth-grade class were having an Honor Roll ceremony. Amerie knew she would probably be recognized for another year of good grades.

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