“Someone tell me what to do”
Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.
The children hid. They dropped to the floor, crouching under desks and countertops, far from the windows. They lined up against the walls, avoiding the elementary school doors that separated them from a mass shooter about a decade older than them. Some held up the blunted scissors that they often used to cut shapes as they prepared to fight. A few grabbed bloodied phones and dialed 911. And as students across the country have been instructed for years, they remained quiet, impossibly quiet. At times, they hushed classmates who screamed in agony from the bullets that tore through their small bodies.
Then, they waited. Waited for the adults, whom they could hear in the hallway. If they were just patient, those adults would save them.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers descended on Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, that day in May 2022. They, too, waited. They waited for someone, anyone, to tell them what to do. They waited for the right keys and specialized equipment to open doors. They waited out of fear that the lack of ballistic shields and flash-bangs would leave them vulnerable against the power of an AR-15-style rifle. Most astonishingly, they waited for the children’s cries to confirm that people were still alive inside the classrooms.
“I’m watching that door. No screams. No nothing. No nothing. You know. Things you would think you would hear if there had been kids in there,” Cpl. Gregory Villa, who had been with the Uvalde Police Department for 11 years, told an investigator days after the attack that left 19 children and two teachers dead.
If there were children inside, Villa said, officers would have probably heard the shooter saying, “‘Hey, everybody shut up,’ and then kids are like, ‘Oh no, I gotta, I want my mommy.’”
Villa, who received active shooter training four years earlier, was among several officers who told investigators that they didn’t believe children were in the classrooms because they were so quiet. The children’s strict adherence to remaining silent was, in fact, part of their training. Officers’ own training instructs them to confront a shooter if there is reason to believe someone is hurt.
“I just honestly thought that they were in the cafeteria because it seemed like all the lights were off and it seemed like it was really quiet. I didn’t hear any screaming, any yelling. I literally didn’t hear anything at all,” Uvalde police Staff Sgt. Eduardo Canales recalled to an investigator. “You would think kids would be yelling and screaming.”
The accounts of law enforcement’s actions during one of the worst school shootings in history are among a trove of recorded investigative interviews and body camera footage obtained by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and FRONTLINE. Together, the hundreds of hours of audio and video offer a startling finding: The children in Uvalde were prepared, dutifully following what they had learned during active shooter drills, even as their friends and teachers were bleeding to death. Many of the officers, who had trained at least once during their careers for such a situation, were not.
Mass shootings have become a fact of American life, with at least 120 since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. Debates often erupt along partisan lines as anguished communities demand change. When children are gunned down, calls for tighter gun laws are matched with plans for arming teachers and hardening schools.
One thing that seemingly unites all sides is the notion of better training for law enforcement. But, in actuality, few laws exist requiring such instruction.
In the wake of the Columbine shooting, law enforcement agencies across the country began retooling protocols to prevent long delays like the one that kept officers there from stopping the two shooters. Key among the changes was an effort to ensure that all officers had enough training to engage a shooter without having to wait for more specialized teams.
More than two decades later, law enforcement’s chaotic response in Uvalde and officers’ subsequent explanations of their inaction show that the promise of adequate training to respond to a mass shooting has yet to be fully realized.
Officers failed to set up a clear command structure. They spread incorrect information that caused them to treat the shooter as a barricaded suspect and not an active threat even as children and teachers called 911 pleading for help. And no single officer engaged the shooter despite training that says they should do so as quickly as possible if anyone is hurt. It took 77 minutes to breach the classroom and take down the shooter.
“It’s pretty stunning that we’re 24 years after the Columbine massacre and we’re still dealing with a lack of training on how to deal with these active assailants,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. “I’m not sure who is to be held responsible for that, but it really is unacceptable that officers are not getting that training.”
A nationwide analysis by the news organizations shows states require far more training to prepare students and teachers for a mass shooting than they do for the police who are expected to protect them.
At least 37 states have laws mandating that schools conduct active shooter-related drills. All but four of those states require them at least annually.
In contrast, only Texas and Michigan have laws requiring training for all officers after they graduate from police academies. Texas’ law is the strongest in the country, mandating that officers train for 16 hours every two years. That requirement came about only after the Uvalde massacre.
The absence of legislation has created an uneven and inconsistent approach, which fails to ensure that officers not only receive the training they need to confront a mass shooter, but drill often enough to follow it in the adrenaline-soaked atmosphere of a real shooting, law enforcement experts said. Some also emphasize the importance of multiagency training so that officers are not responding to a crisis alongside people they’ve never worked with before. Yet few states, if any, require agencies to train together.
About 72% of the at least 116 state and local officers who arrived at Robb Elementary before the gunman was killed had received some form of active shooter training during their careers, according to an analysis of records obtained by ProPublica, the Tribune and FRONTLINE. Officers who received training before the Uvalde shooting had most commonly taken it only once, which law enforcement experts say is not enough. Only three officers would have met Texas’ new standard for training.
The news organizations reached out to each of the officers in this piece. An attorney representing officers with the Uvalde Police Department said the city has ordered them not to comment because of an ongoing internal investigation. Officers with other agencies did not return phone calls, texts and emails or declined to comment.
Across the country, officers are increasingly responding to situations with active shooters, some of whom have access to weapons originally designed for war. In the absence of gun control legislation, sales of these types of weapons have increased.
Unlike military service members who spend the majority of their time training for the possibility that they may someday see combat, police spend the bulk of their days responding to a variety of incidents, most of which do not involve violent encounters. Experts say that leaves many unprepared as the nation’s tally of mass shootings grows.
No clear consensus exists on just how much training is sufficient, though experts agree on the need for repetition. Even then, consistent training cannot guarantee that officers will do everything right, said John Curnutt, assistant director at Texas State University’s Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center, which is rated as the national standard by the FBI. Still, Curnutt said, routine training is the best way to improve officers’ response.
“It has to be really driven into somebody to the point where it becomes instinctive, habitual,” Curnutt said. “Before you really get a chance to think about it, you’re already doing it. And it takes more than 10 or 11 times to get that good at something like this that is going to be incredibly difficult to do when you know that, ‘I’m about to die, but I’m going to do this anyway.’ Who thinks like that? Not everybody. We know that. Not everybody that’s in uniform does.”
Praying for help
It was 11:30 a.m. on May 24, 2022. The timer that Elsa Avila set had just gone off, notifying her fourth grade class that the extra minutes she’d given them to make shoes out of newspapers for a STEM challenge had drawn to a close. Now they were going outside to test how long the shoes held up on the school track.
Avila gathered the children for a photo before they formed a single-file line. At the front, one of the students peered into the hallway. “Miss, there’s a class coming in and they’re screaming and they’re running to their room,” Avila recalled the student saying as the teacher of 27 years described the details of that day to investigators.
“You let their teacher worry about them,” Avila replied, believing that the student was simply reporting unruly behavior.
This was different, the girl insisted. The children were scared. So, Avila peeked into the hallway.
“Get in your rooms!” Avila heard a woman scream.
“So I just slammed my door back in, turned off the lights and, at that time, the kids know, because we practice these drills, they know: ‘OK, shut the door, you know. Slam the lights. We’ve got to go into our positions,’” Avila recalled.
The educator and her students formed an “L,” crouching down against the two walls that were farthest from the doors and windows. It was a drill they’d practiced so much that, at times, it had become tiresome. The training that Avila had hoped they’d never have to use: Run. Hide. Fight.
For now, they hid.
Avila stood up momentarily to make sure that her students were safe.
It was then that a bullet pierced the wall, ripping into the teacher’s stomach.
Avila fell to the ground and dropped her phone. After dragging herself to the phone, she scrolled through previous texts to find one that included a group of teachers from the school.
“Im shot,” she wrote at 11:35 a.m., mistakenly texting her siblings before eventually also messaging her colleagues.
Only five minutes had passed since Avila’s timer rang for what was intended to be a celebratory moment.
In that time, the gunman had entered the building after crashing a truck into a nearby ditch and police had received their first 911 call from a teacher informing them that the shooter was in the school. In those five minutes, the teenage shooter unleashed nearly 100 rounds of gunfire.
A child’s drawing for investigators shows how students in Room 109, two doors away from the shooter, followed their training. Children and teachers formed an “L,” crouching against the walls farthest from doors and windows. In the drawing, the child wrote “hide,” reflecting a key part of the training.
One of Avila’s students was among those injured. Bullet fragments struck 10-year-old Leann Garcia on the nose and mouth. Blood dripped onto her clothes as her friend, Ailyn Ramos, held her and tried to keep her from screaming out in pain.
“If I die, I love you,” Leann whispered to Ailyn.
“As long as you’re in here with me, you’re not going to die,” Ailyn later recalled responding in an interview with the news organizations. (Ailyn’s account, like those of all the children named in this piece, is included with the permission of a parent.)
With their teacher flitting in and out of consciousness, the children huddled together. For a moment they did something that their lockdown training had not taught them, but that their teacher had always told them to do in difficult times, Ailyn told the news organizations.
“Please let the cops come in.”
Diverting from the training
Outside of the school, Uvalde police Sgt. Daniel Coronado heard the unmistakable gunfire from the shooter’s semiautomatic rifle. “Oh, shit, shots fired! Get inside,” Coronado yelled at about 11:35 a.m. while breathlessly running toward the building.
Entering a smoke-filled hallway, Coronado, a 17-year veteran of the department, walked past printouts of summer sandals that had been brightly colored by children, who were now nearing their last day of school. Seconds later, there was another round of gunfire from rooms 111 and 112, the adjoining classrooms from which the shooter was terrorizing teachers and children.
The shots injured Canales and Lt. Javier Martinez, two Uvalde police officers who had initially approached the classrooms. Blood trickled from Canales’ ear and bullet fragments grazed Martinez’s head. Both officers retreated. Though hurt, Martinez again ran toward the door. No one followed. He eventually pulled back. The officers had taken active shooter training only once: Martinez in 2014 and Canales the year before the shooting.
The failure to engage the shooter was the first in a handful of critical missteps by officers in the initial 10 minutes. Each ran counter to what the training teaches.
Among the missteps was the fact that no one took charge or set up a command post to guide the response, which experts say should happen quickly after arrival. Another was Coronado’s decision to relay an unconfirmed report from a school resource officer that the suspect was holed up in an office. The information proved to be inaccurate, and the misunderstanding helped shape officers’ approach to the incident.
“Male subject is in the school on the west side of the building,” Coronado radioed at 11:41 a.m. “He’s contained. We got multiple officers inside the building at this time. Believe he’s, uh, barricaded in one of the offices. Male subject’s still shooting.”
Though some officers struggled with malfunctioning radios, Coronado’s words reached enough of them to contribute to a widespread belief that the shooter was possibly alone inside a room with no victims, even as evidence mounted that children and teachers were in danger.
Initially believing he was responding to an active shooter, Texas Department of Public Safety Special Agent Colten Valenzuela told an investigator that his mindset changed after arriving at the school.
“When we did get there, we were told that it was a barricaded subject, so that kind of flipped the direction,” Valenzuela said.
Asked by an investigator about the determination that the shooter was barricaded, Coronado, who completed active shooter training a decade earlier, said: “I don’t know where that came out of, you know what I mean? You’re just reacting to what you’re dealing with at that moment in time.”
“You don’t see any bodies,” Coronado added. “You don’t see any blood. You don’t see anybody yelling, screaming for help. Those are motivators for you to say, ‘Hey, get going, move,’ but if you don’t have that, then slow down.”
Uvalde is among the most striking examples of a botched police response to a mass shooting, but officers’ failures to immediately stop a shooter despite being trained extend beyond the Texas city, according to a ProPublica, Tribune and FRONTLINE review of dozens of after-action reports and publicly released video. In some cases, the delays are well-known. In Orlando, Florida, officers waited about three hours to take down a shooter at the Pulse night club in 2016 despite 911 calls indicating some hostages were shot. The initial officer who responded to the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, never entered the building where a shooter killed 17 students and staff.
Other missteps have not been as widely scrutinized. In Las Vegas in 2017, two officers stayed on the hotel floor below a shooter instead of rushing upstairs to confront him as he spewed bullets into a crowd of concertgoers. The next year in Thousand Oaks, California, officers attempted to confront a shooter within minutes of arriving at the scene. Some retreated after he shot at them. Police did not reenter to engage the shooter again for more than 40 minutes, even as victims remained inside.
In contrast, several officers credited their repeated training after they were celebrated for acting expeditiously to take down a shooter in March at a private Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee. Such instruction, they said, allowed them to momentarily ignore the emotion of stepping over a victim to get to the shooter so as to prevent further harm. About two months later, an officer in Allen, a Dallas suburb, shot a gunman minutes after his killing spree began at an outlet mall. Police and fire officials later praised years of joint training as key to the swift response.
The ability to work together was absent in Uvalde, Ruby Gonzalez, a school resource officer, told an investigator. Despite most of the officers being trained, various agencies that arrived at the scene were not accustomed to working together and had their own operating procedures, Gonzalez said.
“We couldn’t find a way to work together because each agency wanted to do things how they, how they see fit,” she said when asked if she believed the response that day followed the training she had taken.
At the time of the Uvalde shooting, Texas required only that school resource officers take an eight-hour active shooter course. The requirement did not apply to thousands of officers in police departments and sheriff’s offices across the state, contributing to vast disparities in training.
About 84% of the DPS officers who responded to the Uvalde shooting before the gunman was killed had been trained. Yet only about 67% of the Uvalde Police Department officers and roughly 36% of the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Office deputies had taken active shooter courses, according to an analysis of records that detail training after officers graduate from academies.
Collectively, local and state agencies sent at least 116 officers to the Uvalde shooting before the breach. While a majority of those officers had received some instruction to confront an active shooter, about half had not been trained since 2018 or before. That was the year a gunman entered Santa Fe High School near Houston and killed 10 people.
Federal law enforcement agencies, who sent about 180 officers to the scene before and after the breach, declined to provide training records for their officers, leaving the amount of instruction they received unclear. A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection, the agency with the majority of the federal officers on scene, said in a statement that it continues to review the response and is “committed to identifying any improvements to training or tactics.”
DPS and the Uvalde sheriff’s office did not respond to questions about their departments’ training. A spokesperson for the city of Uvalde said that since the shooting, officials have purchased equipment like shields and breaching tools and have expanded training to include surrounding agencies.
Uvalde officers will also be among those required to meet Texas’ new standard — 16 hours of instruction every two years.
The post-Uvalde mandate is rare.
In the vast majority of states, officers are only required to prepare to confront a shooter in academies that train new recruits, but even that can vary widely between four and dozens of hours of instruction. Once those officers get the training, most are not required under the law to ever take it again.
“If we’re not training the right way and we’re not preparing ourselves and our kids and our responders, then we’re going to keep doing this for the next 25 years,” said John McDonald, who developed the school safety program in Jefferson County, Colorado, which includes Columbine, after the 1999 shooting. “We’re going to say, ‘Geez, for 50 years we haven’t figured it out.’ Well, shame on us.”
“Kids in this room”
Nicole Ogburn, a teacher in Room 102, used her Apple Watch to dial 911 three times but couldn’t get through. On her fourth try, at 11:40 a.m., one of the city’s two dispatchers finally picked up.
Ogburn reported that there was an active shooter at the school, saying she could hear the gunshots outside of her classroom.
911 dispatcher: You can hear the gunshots being fired?
Ogburn: Yeah, they’re in the building. I don’t know. There’s been a lot. A whole lot. And I got a message that somebody, somebody is shot in another classroom.
911 dispatcher: Somebody is shot in a classroom, ma’am? OK, can you tell me …
Ogburn: Not mine. In another one. Another classroom. I don’t know. I don’t know. Please hurry. Hurry.
911 dispatcher: What room number? What room number? Can you tell me what room?
Ogburn: I’m in Room 102.
911 dispatcher: Is he going to be across from you?
Ogburn: I don’t know where he’s at right now. I got to go. I can’t let him hear me. I can’t let him hear me.
While Ogburn was on the phone with 911, dispatchers received another call. This time from Pete Arredondo. The school district police chief, who had taken active shooter training four times during his nearly 30-year career, was supposed to take charge, according to the district’s active shooter plan.
Arredondo, who had dropped his radio on the way into the school and didn’t have a body camera, asked the dispatcher for backup and more equipment.
“I’m inside the building with this man. He has an AR-15. He shot a whole bunch of times. We’re, yes, we’re inside the building,” Arredondo told the dispatcher. “He’s in one room. I need a lot of firepower, so I need this building surrounded, surrounded with as many AR-15s as possible.”
In that brief moment, Arredondo would learn from the dispatcher what police could not see on the other side of the classroom doors: Someone was injured.
Arredondo does not appear to have shared the information with other officers, according to body camera footage and radio calls reviewed by the news organizations.
Active shooter training instructs that officers should act immediately if there is reliable evidence that an attacker is killing people or preventing critically injured victims from getting medical attention.
But 17 more minutes passed before officers opened the door to Ogburn’s classroom. Even then, their discovery of children was an accident.
Uvalde County Sheriff’s Deputy Reymundo Lara recalled to investigators how he came to realize there were children in the room. Lara, who had not taken active shooter training, said he took a tactical position, aiming at the classroom where the shooter remained.
“I was like, you know what, my feet need to be a little bit more comfortable,” Lara added. “So, I get up, open the door. I propped it open so I could stick my leg in and lay back down and aim at the classroom where this suspect’s at. Something is telling me, ‘Hey, just check the classroom.’”
At first, Lara did not see anything. The lights were off and a movie played on the TV.
Then, the deputy spotted children.
“Hey,” Lara yelled. “We got kids in this room.”
Officers rushed to help Ogburn and her students escape through the window. “Kids coming out. Kids coming out. Kids coming out,” Coronado said, his body camera picking up the moment they were pulled out through the window.
Coronado’s heart sank. “Oh shit, there’s kids,” he recalled thinking while speaking with investigators. “That was the first time that we realized, no, there are kids inside the building.”
Uvalde Police Sgts. Daniel Coronado and Donald Page tell another officer outside of the school that there are no children inside.
Coronado Body Camera Footage
Uvalde County Sheriff's Deputy Reymundo Lara opens a classroom door and discovers children inside.
Lara Body Camera Footage
The children are evacuated from their classroom through the window.
Coronado Body Camera Footage
“I thought it was a trick”
Though officers were now aware that children and teachers remained in classrooms, Avila and her students continued to wait to be rescued.
Still losing blood from the gunshot wound to her stomach, the teacher knew she had to stay awake for her students.
“I didn’t want to pass out because I didn’t want to leave them alone,” she recalled in an interview with an investigator.
Moments of darkness were punctuated by the children trying to keep her calm. She could hear some of them saying, “Don’t let her go to sleep.”
“Miss, we love you. We love you,” she recalled one telling her. “Miss, you’re going to be OK.”
Avila could hear the school district chief, who began trying to negotiate with the shooter 24 minutes after officers entered the school.
“Can you please put your firearm down? We don’t want anyone else hurt,” Arredondo said.
At one point, the children in Avila’s class heard people fiddling with their door. “Police open up!”
“I thought it was a trick,” Leann, the injured 10-year-old, recalled thinking during an interview with investigators.
None of the children said anything. How could they know it was not the shooter?
Indeed, the students did as they were taught to do in their drills.
“We tell kids if someone’s knocking on a door and says, ‘Police officer, open up,’ don’t open the door. We tell teachers that all the time. And we test it,” said McDonald, who now serves as chief operating officer of The Council for School Safety Leadership, an organization that helps school leaders respond to threats and tragedies. “That could be someone trying to trick you to come out. Cops have keys. They have the ability to breach. They have tools to get in. They will come in.”
But the police didn’t come into Avila’s classroom at that moment. They also did not try to enter rooms 111 and 112, where the shooter remained, after learning from Ruben Ruiz, a school resource officer, that his wife, Eva Mireles, was injured in one of them.
At 11:56 a.m., Ruiz pushed urgently through a scrum of officers, attempting to get closer to his wife’s classroom after she’d called to tell him what happened.
“She says she’s shot, Johnny,” Ruiz said as an officer stopped him from pressing forward.
Instead of acting on the information, officers guided him outside and took away his gun.
One of the officers who heard Ruiz was Justin Mendoza. The rookie officer, who had only been with the Uvalde Police Department for about two years, had not received active shooter training, according to state records.
Mendoza said officers knew they needed to get into the classrooms, including Mireles’, but they didn’t have the right equipment. His sentiment was shared by more than a dozen officers who, in interviews with investigators, expressed fear of the shooter’s semiautomatic rifle.
“Like I said, we didn’t have any shields, no, no flash-bangs, no nothing that we could’ve used to create a distraction,” Mendoza recalled, “to, not only, like, not to sound selfish, but make sure we go home at the end of the day, but at least more of these kids can go home at the end of the day.”
Though officers signed up for the job knowing that they were putting their lives at risk, they’d never been confronted with a mass shooter, Mendoza said.
“None of us ever thought any of this situation would ever happen here, in Uvalde,” he said.
“Full of victims”
About 40 minutes after the shooting began, officers received an urgent broadcast over their police radios that experts said marked another crucial moment that should have prompted them to immediately confront the shooter.
A child who was in one of the adjoining rooms with the shooter had reported a “room full of victims. Full of victims at this moment,” a dispatcher said over the radio.
“Fuck, full of victims,” one officer said aloud after hearing the radio communication. “Child called 911 and said room’s full of victims.”
Minutes later, the dispatcher radioed again: “Be advised, we do have one teacher that is still alive with wounds and eight to nine children.”
Officers did not hear the grueling 17-minute call in which 10-year-old Khloie Torres and her friend Miah Cerrillo pleaded for help, repeatedly asking for police assistance. They didn’t hear Khloie, who had been struck by shrapnel from the shooter’s bullets, as she quietly begged for them to hurry, telling the 911 operator: “There’s a lot of dead bodies. Please help. I don’t want to die.” The same officers who said that the children’s silence kept them from rushing the classroom didn’t get to listen in as the dispatcher repeatedly told Khloie to keep the children quiet. They didn’t hear her promises that officers were on their way to save Khloie and her classmates.
Despite some radios not working inside the school, officers who heard the dispatcher’s broadcast now knew that children and at least one adult remained alive, trapped with the shooter on the other side of the door. Those details, along with earlier signs that included sporadic gunfire and information that an officer’s wife was shot but still alive in the classroom, should have jogged in their minds a key lesson from training. They should have moved swiftly to stop the killing and stop the dying, experts said.
“You know kids are in there. You know you have a teacher that’s hurt. You’ve been shot at already. You’ve got an officer that’s been wounded. I mean, I think the intel is there,” said McDonald, the school safety expert who reviewed the footage at the request of the news organizations. “The environment is there. So how do you get in that room? What are your options to get in that room? And I think that has to be a priority. You already had one officer who said his wife was in there several minutes ago. Stop the dying.”
Instead, law enforcement officers, including members of a highly trained Border Patrol tactical team that had just arrived, continued to wait, even as they received some specialized equipment that they said they needed to breach the metal door and enter the classroom. No one ever checked the door to see if it was unlocked, although a state House committee that later reviewed the shooting determined it probably was.
Days after the attack, Uvalde police Officer Michael Wally recalled to an investigator the moment he heard there were victims in the classroom with the shooter. It didn’t make sense, Wally told him. Since he arrived at the school, he’d been asking who was leading the response. Who was the officer in charge? No one provided an answer, but he was repeatedly told the school district police chief was negotiating with the shooter.
Arredondo later told the Tribune and investigators that he did not view himself as in charge. He defended his actions and those of others.
“I kept going back to who is OIC. Who is, who’s, who’s fucking in charge? Excuse my language, but who’s, who’s in charge?” recalled Wally, who last took an active shooter course in 2015. “I’m a patrol officer. I can’t, you know, I’m not in there. I’m not in the hallway. I’m not talking to our gunman. I’m not talking to the guy who’s talking to our gunman. No communication is coming back out to me. So there’s got to be someone else. There’s got to be someone else that’s in charge. Someone tell me what to do.
“And you know this, you’ve probably been wearing a badge a lot longer than I have,” Wally told the investigator, “but chain of command is everything. And, it was not there.”
In the absence of clear leadership and communication, misinformation continued to spread.
Shortly after the radio communication from the dispatcher, a Border Patrol medic arrived. He asked about the victims. A state game warden quickly replied that they had not heard of any injuries. “Uh, yes there are,” an Uvalde police detective responded.
The medic pushed his way into the building and began setting up a triage station to treat the wounded. There, law enforcement officers, including members of the Border Patrol strike team, huddled, body camera footage shows.
The minutes continued to tick away as the team prepared to enter the room.
Uvalde police Officer Justin Mendoza and Uvalde police Detective Jose Rodriguez hear a dispatcher tell officers that a child said Room 112 was full of victims.
Mendoza Body Camera Footage
Six minutes later, state game warden Dennis Gazaway mistakenly tells Border Patrol medic Diego Merino-Ruiz that there are no injured children inside but is quickly corrected by Rodriguez.
Gazaway Body Camera Footage
Searching for a key
Though officers had already broken through windows to evacuate students, they fixated on finding keys to unlock the three classrooms that still had children in them.
Arredondo had earlier decided that they would not enter the two adjoining classrooms that would force them to confront the shooter until they cleared others first, according to his interview with investigators and body camera footage.
That left Avila’s classroom. Over the years, the teacher had learned that the only way the door to Room 109 would lock was if she slammed it closed. That is just what she did that day to ensure that the shooter could not enter.
Arredondo later told investigators that he knew his decision would likely be scrutinized, but he did what he thought was best at the time. He said that he believed the shooter had probably killed at least one person inside rooms 111 and 112, but that he knew that children in other classrooms remained alive.
“The preservation of life around everything around him, I felt was priority,” Arredondo said.
Officers tried prying Avila’s door open with a knife. They also tested various keys that did not work in search of a master key. Eventually, they decided that the only way in would be through the outside and began breaking the window.
Avila’s students started crying as officers yelled, “Police, we’re here to help you!” Some ran toward the window. Others waited, Avila recalled. They still did not know whether to trust the voices from outside.
“They didn’t want to move until I told them to move,” the injured teacher recalled. “So, then I stood up, and I told them, ‘Come on guys.’”
As soon as the classroom was cleared at 12:26 p.m., Arredondo signaled that officers could begin breaching the classrooms with the shooter. “Got a team ready to go? Have at it,” he can be heard saying on body camera footage as officers stood around him.
It’s unclear if that message ever made it to the Border Patrol tactical team, which was on the other end of the hallway, or if anyone, at that point, was heeding the school district chief’s direction.
One last call
Over the next 24 minutes, Khloie and other children in Room 112 continued to rely on one another for survival.
Despite the excruciating wait, now more than 50 minutes from the time the shooter had fired the initial volley of shots, the children continued to follow their training. They hid and remained quiet, even as several of them had injuries that made such silence inconceivable.
“I looked around, and I was like, people were cuddling up to each other, they were like,
‘I’m going to die,’” Khloie later told an investigator. “And I was like: ‘You’re not going to die. Just be really quiet.’”
“I remember telling everybody that ‘we’re going to get through this, and just don’t make a sound,’” she added. “‘Just be as quiet as a mouse.’”
Instead of being protected, Khloie told the investigator, she became the protector.
Khloie worked to calm her classmate Kendall Olivarez, who wailed in pain. Kendall was wedged under a teacher who had been killed by the shooter, and bullets had pierced the girl’s arm, back and leg. Khloie helped pull Kendall from under her teacher. They crawled beneath a table as they hid from the shooter who was in the adjoining classroom. Meanwhile, Mireles, their other teacher, was losing blood and cried out for her daughter.
Khloie grabbed her foot and tried to comfort her. “Don’t be scared,” she told her.
Desperate for help, Khloie’s friend Miah dialed 911 one last time, pleading with the operator to send police. They were coming, the dispatcher assured her, adding that if anyone entered the classroom, the children should pretend to be asleep.
As she waited, Miah, who had been struck by shrapnel, sobbed quietly into the phone.
Finally, 77 minutes after the shooter entered the school, 54 minutes after one of the officers reported that his wife had been shot and 38 minutes after a dispatcher shared that there were victims in the classroom, the adults had arrived to help.
At 12:50 p.m., a team led by the Border Patrol strike team entered Room 111. The gunman jumped out of a closet, firing at a federal officer and grazing him in the head. Officers returned fire, killing the shooter.
Still on the phone with the 911 operator, Miah, who was hiding in Room 112, mistakenly thought the gunman was coming for her.
She later recalled the moment to an investigator, saying, “I was, like, thinking it was him, he came back in the classroom. And then I look up and it was the police and all my friends started running towards them. And me and my friend were crying because we were scared. We ran to the hallway and I saw people, pass — dead and then blood on all of the floor.”
First responders tried to rush out the living, taking Mireles, who still had a pulse, outside to be treated by medics. EMS declared her dead about an hour later in an ambulance that never left the school. Two children also had a pulse when they were taken out but later died. With insufficient ambulances to treat victims, police placed six children in a school bus, including Miah, Khloie and Kendall.
With them were two state troopers who were suddenly forced to act as medics, although they lacked qualifications. With blood from those who were injured around her soaked into her hair and clothes, and smeared on her face and hands, Khloie cried. She wanted her dad and she wanted to know if one of her friends survived, though she knew the answer even before asking.
She also wanted the officer to know that she had tried.
“Ma’am, I was on the phone with the police officer,” Khloie told a state trooper through tears.
“Oh, that was you?” the trooper asked.
“OK, OK, you were so brave. Y’all were so brave, OK?” the officer said, stroking her head.
“I was trying not to cry,” Khloie replied.
Khloie Torres, on a school bus with other classmates, tells Department of Public Safety Special Trooper Crimson Elizondo that she called 911.
Warning: The following video has a loud ringing sound and shows a distressed child covered in blood that is not her own. We are publishing it with the family's consent.
Elizondo Body Camera Footage
More than two hours after the shooting began, the school was quiet once again.
David Joy, a Border Patrol supervisor in Uvalde, picked up a body camera that an officer dropped. It was still recording.
Once in his car, he called his daughters’ school.
“I need, I need to talk to the principal as soon as I possibly can,” Joy said to the woman who answered the phone, explaining that he was a Border Patrol agent working out of the Uvalde station. After asking if she had heard about what happened, he said, “There’s some stuff that was extremely like, I, like there are some issues that I have with the way things, I want to be able to talk with somebody to just give you some advice and stuff that kind of slowed us down a little bit that maybe would be able to, God forbid something, God forbid something happen and y’all aren’t set up for it.”
In the weeks that followed the shooting, hundreds of officers recounted their role in the failed response during interviews with state and federal investigators.
Some said they did all that they could under the circumstances. Others sobbed. They recalled seeing the children’s lifeless bodies, the fear in the faces of the survivors. They had already felt the anger from residents in the city of 15,000 people who were forced to bury two teachers and 19 children, some of whom were related to officers. Several wrestled with whether they could have done more. A few wondered if any amount of training could have prepared them for that day.
“It, it, it was a horrific thing and we lost no matter what. Um, I, I, I want to learn from it, you know,” Coronado, the Uvalde police sergeant, told an investigator. “I, I want, I, I, I want, I want an opportunity to have someone better than me tell me, ‘Hey, we could’ve done this or we could’ve done that.’ You know what I mean? I, I, I, I, I, I want that.”
Two children in his family died that day. He did not attend their funerals, telling an investigator that some of his relatives “think that we fucking let ’em die.”
The initial probe by the Texas Rangers, the DPS’ investigative arm, is complete but has not been made public. Of the hundreds of officers who responded that day, less than a handful have been fired, including Arredondo. An attorney representing Arredondo released a statement before he was terminated, saying that his client was being used as a “fall guy.” Several officers from various agencies either resigned, were reassigned or retired.
News organizations, including ProPublica and the Tribune, have sued the state for records that would help families and the public better understand what happened that day. The state has repeatedly fought their release, citing an ongoing criminal investigation by the Uvalde district attorney, who has said that she plans to present a case before a grand jury this year. A state district judge ruled in the newsrooms' favor, though DPS has said it plans to appeal.
The wait for the findings has now grown to 18 months. It’s unclear whether and when they will be released.
“I just wish someone would have taken charge. I wish someone would’ve …,” Wally, the Uvalde police officer, said while talking with an investigator in the days after the shooting, his voice trailing off. “And I know this is going to be open record one day. Let it be on open record. Fuck politics. Someone take charge. Let’s fix this. That’s what I wanted. That’s what everybody wanted.”
Juanita Ceballos, Michelle Mizner and Lauren Prestileo of FRONTLINE and Zach Despart of The Texas Tribune contributed reporting.
Illustrations by Pei-Hsin Cho for ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and Frontline
Design and development by Zisiga Mukulu of ProPublica.
Graphics and development by Lucas Waldron of ProPublica.
Carla Astudillo also contributed design and development.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/05/uvalde-officer-student-trainings-mass-shootings/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.
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