US students in Uvalde, Texas back at school amid grief and fear

Students in Uvalde, Texas have returned to school amid heavy security, three months after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in their fourth-grade classrooms, in a mass shooting that sent shockwaves around the United States.

Children began arriving at Uvalde Elementary before dawn on Tuesday, walking through newly installed 2.4-metre (8-foot) metal fencing that surrounds the campus and past a state trooper standing guard outside an entrance. Colourful flags hung inside the hallways and teachers wore turquoise shirts that read “Together We Rise & Together We Are Better” on the back. State troopers were parked on every corner outside the school.

Robb Elementary School, where the shooting took place, did not reopen. And although school started weeks ago in many parts of Texas, officials pushed back the first day of class in Uvalde after a summer of unfathomable heartache, anger and revelations of widespread failures by law enforcement who allowed an 18-year-old gunman with an AR-15-style rifle to fire inside the adjoining classrooms for more than 70 minutes.

 

 

Teachers hugged students climbing out of cars in the drop-off line and guided them towards a line of teachers in turquoise shirts who were waiting for them behind the fence.

“Good morning, sunshine!” one teacher could be heard saying. “You ready to have a good school year?”

Ashley Morales is putting her son, Jeremiah, back in class – because she says she has no other choice as a working single mother. She said she would drop him off outside Uvalde Elementary on the first day, as parents were not allowed inside.

“I’m just nervous, scared,” said Morales, whose son was a third-grader last year at Robb Elementary and lost three friends in the May 24 incident. During a recent “Meet the Teacher” night, she felt a rush of anxiety walking down the school hall.

“Oh my gosh, it’s actually going to happen,” she said. “School is going to start.”

Students arrive at Uvalde Elementary for the first day of school as workers continued construction on a new fence [Eric Gay/AP]

Despite pushing back the start of the school year, Uvalde school officials said several enhanced security measures remain incomplete, including installing additional cameras and new locks.

The Texas Department of Public Safety has committed to putting nearly three dozen state troopers on Uvalde campuses – but that was of no comfort to some families since there were more than 90 state troopers on the scene during the attack.

More than 100 families in Uvalde signed up for virtual school, while others pulled their kids out of the district and enrolled them in private schools. One teacher who was shot in the abdomen and survived, Elsa Avila, would not be greetings students for the first time in 30 years because she is still recovering.

Avila, shot in the abdomen, waited an hour with 16 fourth-grade students in their classroom on May 24 as the gunmen killed children in adjacent rooms before officers arrived to evacuate them. She had repeatedly texted for help during that hour.

“I’m trying to make sense of everything,” Avila told the Associated Press news agency in an August interview, “but it is never going to make sense.”

Large colourful murals for each of the 21 victims were painted around the town of Uvalde, and people around Texas were encouraged to wear maroon and white, in a campaign to support the Uvalde community. Twitter postings showed schools across the state wearing the Uvalde school colours, along with local news teams, first responders from hundreds of miles away and others around the state.

A damning report by a Texas House committee found that nearly 400 officers rushed to Robb Elementary after the shooting but hesitated for more than an hour to confront the shooter. Body camera and surveillance footage showed heavily armed officers, some holding bulletproof shields, stacked in the hallway but not advancing to the classroom.

Steve McCraw, head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, called the response “an abject failure“.

Last month, the Uvalde school board fired district police Chief Pete Arredondo, who McCraw and the House report accused of failing to take control of the scene and wasting time by looking for a key for a classroom door that was likely unlocked. The firing has not quieted demands for others to face punishment. One other officer – Uvalde Lieutenant Mariano Pargas, the acting police chief that day – has been placed on administrative leave.

An investigation into the school district’s police officers’ response to the shooting had not started, the school board told attendees at a meeting last week, according to the Reuters news agency.

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