There’s still a lot about the police response to last week’s massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that doesn’t really make sense.
Texas Director of Public Safety Steve McCraw confirmed Friday that 19 officers waited for 78 minutes as a heavily armed gunman slaughtered fourth-grade kids inside a classroom at Robb Elementary, even as those same kids made desperate calls to 911 begging for help.
McCraw said that even though 911 calls were continuing to come from inside the classroom, the on-scene commander concluded that all the children trapped with the shooter were no longer “at risk”. This determination led the on-scene commander to believe they had the luxury of waiting for backup—and for the janitor to find the keys so that they could open the door to the classroom.
One line of questioning from the public still struggling to wrap their heads around what happened has focused on the building’s layout and internal structure.
What are the classroom doors at Robb Elementary made of? Was it necessary to wait for a janitor to unlock it, or could officers have used physical force to break it down? Were there windows in those classrooms that could have been used by police? Officials have been consistently opaque about law enforcement’s response to the shooting (which is now under investigation by the Justice Department). They’ve remained vague about the timeline, changed their story several times, and divulged limited key information—like the 911 calls from inside the classrooms—only amid mounting public pressure and criticism from experts.
“We tell each officer to go towards the sounds of gunfire,” said Pete Blair, executive director of Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT), an active shooter training program for law enforcement that’s run out of Texas State University. “If for some reason they can’t get into the primary access point, if the door is locked or they are receiving gunfire through the door, if there are other options, it makes sense to look for other options. That could include windows, or other rooms. It could include breaching the actual construction itself.”
Blair declined to comment on the specifics of what happened at Robb Elementary, but there has been no indication from law enforcement that responding officers went anywhere near the windows of the classroom that the gunman was barricaded into.
What we can glean from social media and interviews with survivors of the massacre, is that classroom 111 — where two teachers and more than a dozen children were shot dead — had two, large ground-floor windows.
In late April, Robb Elementary posted on their Facebook page about a recent “boot camp,” where Grade 4 teachers had devised a fun, immersive experience for kids to get a crash course in fractions.
Photos from inside the classroom (which, in keeping with the “boot camp” theme, had been adorned with camo decorations) showed two teachers in action. On one side of the room, there’s a big poster board featuring a list of names, who had been divided into teams for that activity. Many names are the same names of the victims who were killed last week. Above a whiteboard in the classroom are two big letters, “G” and “M.” Other photos identify that class as the G/M class, which stands for the teachers' names: Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles (the two teachers who were killed in the massacre).
It’s apparent from those photos that there are two large windows in that classroom, both of which had blinds pulled shut during that exercise. Photos from other classrooms indicate that blinds are generally kept closed during lessons. Last week, as the gunman stormed the elementary school, the Room 111 students were watching the movie Lilo and Stitch, so it’s likely but not confirmed the blinds were closed.
McCraw said that the 18-year-old shooter approached Robb Elementary holding his AR-15, firing rounds towards the back of the building. In a press conference Friday, McCraw claimed the shooter had been able to enter the building because, earlier, a teacher had propped open a back door using a rock. Some who were seeking to shift blame away from the issue of guns or possible failures of police seized on this revelation. Days later, however, state police walked back that version of events, after a lawyer representing the teacher made a statement that she’d closed the door after learning about a possible gunman in the area. It’s unclear why the door didn’t automatically lock, as it was supposed to.
When the gunman entered the building through the back door, he started firing indiscriminately into classrooms. Daniel Garza, 9, who had just returned to Room 109 following an awards ceremony, told the Washington Post that his teacher ran to the classroom door, jammed a key into it and broke it, then turned the lights off. (Room 109 is two classrooms down from 111, and located on the same side of the building.)
Daniel told the Post that the shooter fired at the door—breaking a panel of glass. (Most doors in that same part of the school also appeared to have glass panels in them, though many are covered up by posters or art, photos on social media indicate.) His teacher was hit in the leg and one of his classmates was wounded in the nose by a ricocheting bullet. The shooter meanwhile barricaded himself into Room 111, which was internally connected to a second classroom, 112.
Daniel and his classmates stayed in room 109 for as long as an hour, up until after Border Patrol agents had killed the suspect in a nearby classroom.
We now know that 78 minutes elapsed between the gunman entering the school building and the gunman being killed. In addition to the 19 officers who stood outside the classroom containing the barricaded shooter during that time, dozens more officers were on the school premises establishing a “perimeter,” while desperate parents begged them to go inside.
Border Patrol agents were quick to arrive on the scene, but according to the New York Times, were initially prevented by local police from going into the school. Children were continuing to call 911 from inside classrooms 111 and 112. At 12:50, Border Patrol officers unlocked a classroom door using a master key that the janitor gave them (it’s currently unclear whether they first entered 111 or 112). Border Patrol said that the gunman came out of a closet he’d been hiding in when they first breached the classroom, and began shooting.
After the gunman was killed, officers tried to get into Garza’s classroom but were unable to as a result of the jammed key. They smashed the outside windows instead, Garza told the Post and helped kids clamber through the broken glass. Garza thinks all in all it took two hours for officers to evacuate his classroom — even though there were shot and wounded kids in there.
“We teach to stop the killing first, then stop the dying second,” said Blair of ALERRT. “If you have reason to believe there are injured people in the room, you have to gain access to stop the dying as well.”
We found one other example where police breached a classroom during a school shooting through the window. It was in 2006, when a heavily armed man stormed West Nickel Mines, a one-room Amish school building in Bart Township, Pennsylvania, and ordered the male students and teachers out of the room, and took the girls hostage. The teacher called the police at 10:30 a.m.; the first officer was on scene seven minutes later, and while waiting for backup, he attempted to negotiate with the gunman. At that point the shooter had barricaded the door with bolts and lumber that he’d brought with him but had not yet fired any shots. As soon as the first shots rang out at 11:07 a.m., police approached and attempted to enter the classroom through the window. As they were breaching the building, the gunman committed suicide.