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Uvalde families tell school leaders they’ve lost their trust

Uvalde residents walk outside and greet each other after a forum with school district leadership as camera crews look on.
Camille Phillips
/
Texas Public Radio
Uvalde residents told school district leadership they no longer trusted or respected them at a forum held July 18, 2022 at John H. Harrell Auditorium. The auditorium is named after the current superintendent's father, who was a previous superintendent with the district.

Uvalde residents told school district officials they no longer trust or respect them during an open forum Monday evening organized by the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District.

Families affected by the shooting had previously criticized the district for limiting public comments at earlier board meetings to 15 minutes, with each person limited to three minutes. In earlier meetings, the board also followed the standard practice of listening — but not responding — to public comments.

Superintendent Hal Harrell began the forum with an apology for not providing an opportunity to dialogue with community members sooner.

“In hindsight, this meeting should have happened earlier. I apologize that it did not, Harrell said. “Trying to find the right time, the right balance out of respect, I did not do well.”

But, for many in the audience, the apology rang hollow. For more than three hours, they took turns asking school leadership questions and demanding decisive action. When the superintendent and board president didn’t provide satisfactory answers, shouts of “Fail” and “Cowards” rang out.

“If things are not done the way they need to be done, we are prepared to walk out, we are prepared to keep our children home and not start school.”
Berlinda Arreola, grandmother of Amerie Jo Garza

“If things are not done the way they need to be done, we are prepared to walk out, we are prepared to keep our children home and not start school,” said Berlinda Arreola, who lost her granddaughter, Amerie Jo Garza, in the shooting.

“Postponing the start of school is not going to matter to us as long as it's not secure. And not only that, we want it audited to make sure that it's done correctly, because we can't trust you all to make sure it's done right.”

Harrell said he agreed that their security needed to be audited, and board president Luis Fernandez said they know they have to earn back trust and respect.

Monday evening, Uvalde residents and the families of the 19 children and two teachers killed in May made it clear that any sliver of regained trust would come only through action.

“I, like many mothers in this community, have hesitations sending our kids back to school this year. There's an anxiousness in my heart that is only worsened by the fear my children have,” said Rachel Martinez. “You want to add more security officers to your current staff, yet the current staff is incompetent and liable for the already massive failure. You need to clean house, you need to start from zero.”

Most calls for accountability at earlier board meetings focused on the school district police chief, Pete Arredondo, who is currently on administrative leave. Monday, the calls for accountability expanded to include the school principal and superintendent for not ensuring doors were locked and well maintained, and all of the school district’s officers.

“What y'all have been lacking to do, even to this point, is be accountable for y'alls mess ups,” said Brett Cross, the uncle and guardian of Uziyah Garcia, one of the 19 children killed by the gunman. “Nobody has accepted accountability, so we're gonna force you all to.”

Cross was one of several people to demand Arredondo be fired immediately, with several others saying they wouldn’t feel safe sending their kids back to school until the officers who failed to protect their children were replaced.

Harrell said he and the school board needed to look over the investigative report released by the Texas House committee on Sunday before they decided whether or not to fire anyone. His careful response went over like a lead balloon with families.

“Do you think our officers that were in the school room that day did their job? Yes or no?” asked Michael Brown.

“No, not from what I saw,” said Harrell.

“So, if they didn't do their job why are we still employing them? That's the bottom line here,” Brown said.

Jesus Rizo, the uncle of Jackie Cazares, who died in the shooting, told the school board they needed to get ahead of things instead of waiting any longer to fire Pete Arredondo.

“I've got news for you: the lawsuits are coming anyhow. What's one more? Buy him out. Retire him,” said Rizo. “You've got to move forward some way, somehow.”

The Texas House committee report released Sunday has given families a better idea of who needs to be held accountable.

In an interview before the forum, Rizo, sister-in-law, Julissa Rizo said the report gave her clarity, but not closure. She’s Jackie Cazares’ aunt and godmother.

“Listening to the investigation, it just confirmed some of the things that we were uncertain of. And one of them, I'll just be flat out with you, was how easy (it was for the gunman) to just walk into this school,” Rizo said. “That to me, infuriates me even more.”

The detail that sticks in her mind is the confirmation that the teacher who survived the shooting, Arnulfo Reyes, had told school administrators his door lock didn’t work months earlier.

“For something like this to happen, it's not OK. Especially if it was something that had been previously reported,” she said.

Like others who spoke at the forum, Rizo and her husband, Manuel, want every law enforcement agency who responded to the shooting held accountable for their inaction.

“Every single one of them. They cannot walk the streets and say they're going to protect and serve because that is just — that's not happening,” Julissa Rizo said. “I don't know whether it's termination. Moving them elsewhere is not going to help. These families expected them to do their jobs and they didn't do it. Tried for negligence? I don't know, but something needs to be done and they all need to be held accountable.”

Manuel Rizo said he was pleasantly surprised that the House committee report drew some of the same conclusions families of the victims of the shooting had reached weeks ago, especially the idea that all of the law enforcement agencies at the scene are responsible for the delayed response.

“They're not biased. Straightforward facts that are going to lead to more questions and hold those accountable for the failures up through the leaders in the city, the school district, and the different law enforcement agencies,” Manuel Rizo said.

“I didn't expect that, so I was shocked to see that. I thought it was going to be a continued — I want to call it close to a cover up. Finger pointing.”

In emails and video updates prior to Monday’s board meeting, Uvalde Superintendent Hal Harrell had said the district was in the process of ordering perimeter fencing, cameras and door locks, and conducting interviews to hire more police officers. He also said the board would vote to delay the start of the school year to give the district time to set up all of the new security measures.

Manuel Rizo said he would like to see some of the money donated to the district used to set up a monitoring system for the district’s security cameras. Rizo said he had asked the House committee if the security camera in the hallway of Robb Elementary was monitored, and the committee told them it wasn’t.

“If this particular camera was monitored remotely by anyone else … they could clearly know on the outside that there was no level of communication. It was chaos, and there was nobody assuming control,” Rizo said, adding that maybe if someone had seen the video in real time, someone would have confronted the gunman sooner.

Over the course of questioning during the forum, Harrell said the fences would be eight feet tall, and the school year would start after Labor Day, on Sept. 6. But after the forum, the doors to the auditorium were locked. A security guard said the regular board meeting had been canceled — delaying any of the actions community members had called for during the forum.

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Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@TPR.org and on Twitter at @cmpcamille. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.