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‘Uvalde Strong’ continues to be tested after nearly two years

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Those of us fortunate enough to have been spared direct involvement in a mass shooting perhaps assume that communities undergo stages of grief, so to speak. They move through initial shock and disbelief, to horror, to a communal coming-together — “Uvalde Strong” — in support of those who have suffered grievous loss and then, ultimately, to acceptance. Perhaps we assume it’s a process similar to the five-stage model of death and dying pioneered by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. For survivors, for a community, Kubler-Ross’s final stage, acceptance, would be necessary for life to go on.

However apt the comparison, the experience of most communities is not that simple. Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six educators, has been battling truth-deniers for more than a decade. Members of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, survivors of a mass shooting that slaughtered 26 Sunday morning worshippers, are fighting the federal government over a financial settlement more than six years after the worst mass shooting in Texas history.

Uvalde is the most recent aching example of the lingering devastation of a mass shooting. Uvalde survivors and family members, to put it bluntly, continue to get kicked in the teeth.

Nearly two years after the small southwest Texas city lost 19 of its precious youngsters and two of its teachers in a mass shooting at Robb Elementary, emotions are still raw, still jagged. Too many of those in a position to help ease a community’s suffering — politicians and law enforcement in particular — continue to fail those they presume to serve.

The latest outrage is an independent investigation commissioned by the Uvalde City Council and conducted by a retired Austin police detective turned consultant. The 182-page report exonerates all 25 Uvalde Police Department officers who, for the most part, responded to the shooting on the morning of May 22, 2022, by standing around in a school hallway and doing nothing while children died in nearby classrooms. The 25 were among some 400 law enforcement officers from eight local, state and federal agencies who showed up at the school and waited as children and teachers were trapped for an agonizing 77 minutes with the 18-year-old shooter before officers killed him. The consultant concluded that the Uvalde officers acted in “good faith.”

Don McLaughlin, the former Uvalde mayor best remembered for cursing at then-gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke for interrupting a news conference Gov. Greg Abbott was holding, told the Texas Newsroom he was shocked at the conclusion exonerating the acting Uvalde police chief. “I don’t fault the officers as much as I fault the leadership, because those officers were put on hold at one point and were waiting for somebody to do something,” he said. “I honestly believe if those officers had been told to go in they would have.”

The report says that the acting Uvalde chief had no doubt the school was under the jurisdiction of the school district police chief. Written “in anticipation of legal defense,” it also says the only officer who violated policy was a nine-month pregnant woman who did not ask a supervisor’s permission to deliver ballistic shields.

Parents and family members attending last week’s news conference were more than shocked. They were outraged. They directed their ire at the cowboy-hat wearing consultant, Jesse Prado, who not only refused to answer questions but left the building before the crowd chanting “coward” and “bring him back” shamed him into returning.

“I’m insulted by this report,” said Councilmember Hector Luevano, as reported by the Texas Tribune. “The families deserve more, the community deserves more.”

Councilmember Ernest “Chip” King III apologized to the angry crowd, many of whom walked out in disgust when Prado blamed family members for trying to break through police lines at Robb Elementary and rescue their own children when it became obvious law enforcement was doing nothing.

Police Chief Daniel Rodriguez, who was on vacation in Arizona during the shooting, said last week he will step down April 6, after 26 years on the force. His parting comments only added to Uvalde’s injury. “Together, we have achieved significant progress and milestones, and I take pride in the positive impact we’ve made during my tenure,” he said in a statement. He didn’t mention May 22, 2022.

Rodriguez’s glib resignation letter and Prado’s absurd findings come two months after the U.S. Justice Department released a massive report that found “cascading failures of leadership, decision- making, tactics, policy and training.” An investigation by the Texas House of Representatives and various media outlets have reached similar conclusions.

Unfortunately, the people of Uvalde have come to expect careless and irresponsible treatment, beginning with the governor communicating misinformation about brave law enforcement personnel rushing the school building. They have been stiffed by the Texas Department of Public Safety when they sought information. State lawmakers last year listened to them plead for some kind of gun-safety legislation — and then, after the Uvalde residents got into their vehicles and began the long drive home, proceeded to ignore their pleas. And now Prado comes along to insult their intelligence.

Uvalde is bracing for the next potential blow. District Attorney Christina Mitchell launched a criminal investigation into the police response months ago. A grand jury was summoned earlier this year, and some law enforcement officials have been called to testify.

City officials, accusing Mitchell of refusing to provide them with information from other responding law enforcement agencies, sued her late last year. Family members of the victims fear a whitewash is in the works.

Uvalde residents no doubt welcomed last week’s surprise visit by Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, but the city, still suffering, needs so much more than celebrity attention. So does every other community in this nation — too many of them to mention — that have been scarred by gun violence.

If our elected officials — if not the American people — have come to accept the consequences of a gun-saturated society, if they have come to accept the reality of periodic mass killing in our schools, churches and other public gathering places, then surely they have a responsibility to deal with the consequences. Texas elected officials — and their counterparts in Washington — continue to ignore sensible gun-safety measures, but the least they can do is fund an army of grief therapists on call for the next grim inevitability, on call for months, even years at a time. Acceptance, as the people of Uvalde will tell you, does not mean closure. The pain may ease, but it does not go away.

We would vastly prefer the sensible, life-affirming approach to gun safety that Great Britain, Japan, Germany and almost every other advanced nation have chosen, but those nations are not America. Their way is not the American way, especially not this version so distorted by Second Amendment absolutism. For that they’re no doubt grateful.

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666