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A memorial of flowers adorn a welcome sign at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Photo by Brandon Bell, Getty

Systemic Failures: Investigation Reveals Shortcomings of Uvalde School Shooting Response

It was one of the last days of the school year in Uvalde, Texas. Parents had come to Robb Elementary School on 24 May 2022 to celebrate their children’s academic milestones in an awards ceremony. Many students had then left early, while others stayed on campus to watch a movie—an almost-summer rite of passage.

But an attacker was en route to disrupt that tradition. He had legally obtained firearms and a significant cache of ammunition, stolen his grandmother’s truck, and was driving towards the school, when he crashed into a ditch outside the school. Two men at a nearby funeral home saw the wreckage and made their way towards the truck. But the attacker emerged and began shooting at them, causing them to flee and someone to call 911 to report a gunman. The attacker then left the scene, carrying a backpack and a rifle. He made his way down the street and hopped a perimeter fence around the school.

Numerous people saw the attacker crash his vehicle and enter the school. They called 911 and alerted school personnel via radio. Law enforcement, nearly 400 of them, responded rapidly. But no one took charge of the scene. Details were miscommunicated. And 77 minutes passed, during which the attacker made his way through the school, opened a classroom door, and shot and killed 19 students and two teachers.

Eventually, once they were reinforced with ballistic shields and flash bangs, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents used a master key to open the door to the classroom the attacker was in. The attacker fired at the agents, who fired back—killing him.

Initial disclosures of the response to the shooting were inaccurate, based on secondhand knowledge from officers who were on the scene at the school and then repeated by officials—including Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

To correct the record and provide a full account to the victims’ families, the Texas House of Representatives created a special investigative committee that interviewed witnesses, reviewed crime scene photos, listened to audio and video recordings, and studied 911 calls, as well as additional documentation of the shooting.

In July 2022, the committee released an interim report of its findings highlighting the shortcomings not only of the officials and first responders on the ground in Uvalde but throughout the U.S. state of Texas.

“Other than the attacker, the committee did not find any ‘villains’ in the course of its investigation,” according to the report. “There is no one to whom we can attribute malice or ill motives. Instead, we found systematic failures and egregiously poor decision making.”

Campus Measures

As part of its investigation, the committee looked into the security measures in place at Robb Elementary and found that while the school had a policy for responding to an active shooter, it did not “adequately prepare” for the risk of an active shooter on campus.

The five-foot fence around the school’s perimeter did not deter intruders, and exterior doors were often propped open or staff otherwise circumvented the locks in place. Additionally, locks on interior doors were on the outside—meaning the solid metal classroom door with a small pane of glass could only be locked from outside using a key.

The school also did not expedite door maintenance or lock repairs, which meant students and staff knew doors to classrooms were not secure. In fact, the teacher in room 211—one of the classrooms targeted by the gunman—had alerted administrators that his door was not always locking, but a work order was never issued to address the problem.

“At a minimum, school administrators and school district police tacitly condoned this behavior as they were aware of these unsafe practices and did not treat them as serious infractions requiring immediate correction,” the report said. “In fact, the school actually suggested circumventing the locks as a solution for the convenience of substitute teachers and others who lacked their own keys.”

The committee also found that alert fatigue—due to “bailouts,” when human traffickers lead law enforcement on a high-speed vehicle chase often resulting in a crash that causes migrants inside the vehicle to flee to avoid capture—may have contributed to a lower sense of vigilance when responding to a security alert. Interviews during the investigation revealed that there were 47 secure or lockdown events at the school between February 2022 and the shooting; 90 percent of those events were related to bailouts.

Low accessibility to the Internet, poor cell phone service coverage, and habits of leaving mobile phones off might also have contributed to a lack of awareness of security alerts that were issued by school officials. Robb Elementary used Raptor Technologies, an emergency management alert system that uses a mobile phone application, to send security and emergency alerts to faculty and staff.

“The committee received evidence that Uvalde CISD employees did not always reliably receive the Raptor alerts,” according to the report. “Reasons included poor Wi-Fi coverage, phones that were turned off or not always carried, and employees who had to log-in on a computer to receive a message.”

Furthermore, no one used the school’s intercom system to alert teachers and students of the active shooter incident.

The committee added that “…had school personnel locked the doors as the school’s policy required, that could have slowed his progress for a few precious minutes—long enough to receive alerts, hide children, and lock doors; and long enough to give police more opportunity to engage and stop the attacker before he could massacre 19 students and two children.”

First Responder Measures

The first law enforcement officials on the scene at Robb Elementary were the commander of the Uvalde Police Department SWAT team and the chief of the school district police. But despite being a best practice for active shooter response since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, law enforcement at Robb Elementary did not follow their training to immediately prioritize engaging the shooter. They instead treated the incident as a barricade situation.

“Despite the immediate presence of local law enforcement leaders, there was an unacceptably long period of time before officers breached the classroom, neutralized the attacker, and began rescue efforts,” the committee wrote. “We do not know at this time whether responders could have saved more lives by shortening that delay. Regardless, law enforcement committed numerous mistakes in violation of current active shooter training, and there are important lessons to be learned from each faulty assumption and poor decision made that day.”

We found systematic failures and egregiously poor decision making.

Those included the fact that while the school district police chief was to assume command of the active shooter response—according to the district’s written active shooter plan—he did not perform those duties or assign them to another individual. No one else assumed the role to provide first responders inside the school with information that there were survivors still inside with the gunman.

“Correcting this error should have sparked greater urgency to immediately breach the classroom by any possible means, to subdue the attacker, and to deliver immediate aid to surviving victims,” the committee wrote. “Recognition of an active shooter scenario also should have prompted responders to prioritize the rescue of innocent victims over the precious time wasted in a search for door keys and shields to enhance the safety of law enforcement responders.”

While more details will continue to emerge about the shooting, the Texas Tribune reports that the committee wanted to create a comprehensive account based on the data available to create policies to prevent future massacres.

“We must not delude ourselves into a false sense of security by believing that ‘this would not happen where we live,’” the committee wrote. “The people of Uvalde undoubtedly felt the same way. We must all take seriously the threats to security in our schools and the need to be properly prepared to confront active shooter scenarios.”

ASIS International has resources for security professionals that can assist in site hardening for soft targets and in mitigating active shooter incidents. ASIS members can also engage with the School Safety and Security Community via ASIS Connects