By Paul J. Weber | Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas — Gilbert Mata woke up excited Tuesday for the first day of school since a gunman’s bullet tore through his leg three months ago in a fourth grade classroom in Uvalde.
The 10-year-old has healed from his physical wounds, but burning smells still remind him of gunfire and the sight of many police officers recalls the day in May that an assailant killed 19 of his classmates and two teachers.
On a morning that many Uvalde families had dreaded, a new school year began in the small South Texas town with big hugs on sidewalks, patrol cars parked at every corner and mothers wiping away tears while pulling away from the curb in the drop-off line.
Mata was ready to return, this time with his own cellphone. His mother, Corina Comacho, had a tougher time letting her child go back to class.
“There’s a certain time he can get his phone out and text us he’s OK,” she said after walking him into a new school, Flores Elementary, and dropping him off behind doors with new locks. “That’s like, ‘OK, that’s good. Now I feel better.’”
Outside Uvalde Elementary, teachers in matching turquoise shirts emblazoned with “Together We Rise & Together We Are Better” gently led students through a newly installed 8-foot (2.4-meter) fence and past a state trooper standing outside the front entrance.
“Good morning, sunshine!” greeted one teacher. “You ready to have a good school year?”
Robb Elementary, where the attack unfolded on May 24, is permanently closed and will eventually be demolished.
A large memorial of stuffed animals, victims’ photographs and crosses remains outside the scene of one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
Outside the other schools in Uvalde — which are only a short drive away — some added safety measures that the district rushed to implement after the attack were incomplete.
Security cameras are still in the works. New metal fencing surrounds some campuses, partially encloses others and isn’t up at all at Flores Elementary, where many Robb students are enrolled this year.
The attack lasted more than 70 minutes before police finally confronted the gunman and killed him. The delay infuriated parents and led to a damning report by state lawmakers. Now more police are on patrol, but distrust is rampant.
“There’s a big ol’ gap right here. Anyone can walk through,” said Celeste Ibarra, 30, pointing to the new barrier around Uvalde Elementary while standing in her front yard across the street.
Ibarra’s older daughter, 9-year-old Aubriella Melchor, was in Robb Elementary during the shooting and seemed to drag out Tuesday morning as long as possible, taking longer than usual to get dressed and poking at her breakfast. When back-to-school shopping rolled around, she didn’t want to go to Walmart, and the glittery pencils Ibarra bought to get her daughter excited didn’t work.
“She kind of just played with her cereal,” Ibarra said after dropping her off. “She was thinking. I know she was scared.”
Uvalde is off to a late start for school: Classes resumed weeks ago in many parts of Texas, where other districts encouraged students and teachers Tuesday to show support by wearing Uvalde’s maroon colors. “We are all standing with you,” first lady Jill Biden tweeted.
Uvalde pushed back the first day of class after a summer of heartache, anger and revelations that nearly 400 officers who rushed to the scene waited so long to go inside the classroom.
Steve McCraw, the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, called the response an “abject failure,” and the district fired school Police Chief Pete Arredondo last month after he was blamed for the slow law enforcement response.
As the new school year got underway, the DPS said Tuesday that five of its officers had been referred to the agency’s inspector general over their action during the shooting. The referrals are the result of an internal review, spokesman Travis Considine said.
The department had more than 90 troopers and officers at the scene of Robb Elementary, more than any other agency.
The agency also made public a letter McCraw sent in July, saying that DPS officers should treat anyone who opens fire at a school as an active shooter, not a “barricaded subject.”
“We will provide proper training and guidelines for recognizing and overcoming poor command decisions at an active shooter scene,” the letter said.
Over the summer, more than 100 students in Uvalde signed up for virtual learning. Others transferred to private schools. Elsa Avila, a fourth grade teacher who was shot in the abdomen and survived, missed the first day of school Tuesday for the first time in 30 years.
For Mata’s family, virtual school wasn’t really in the conversation: Gilbert didn’t do well with online classes during the pandemic. And besides, he wanted to go to Flores Elementary with his friends, said his mother and Michael Martinez, his stepfather.
Mata is one of 11 survivors of the classroom whose families stay in touch, Comacho said. A ricocheted bullet went through his ankle and calf in Room 112.
The extra security measures have brought little comfort to Martinez, who tried to put off everything when it came to the first day. “I wasn’t ready for him to go back to school, but he says he was,” Martinez said.
During an open house at Flores Elementary, Martinez said when he pressed a teacher about how the staff would protect students this time, the response was an unsatisfactory rundown about new locks.
“He didn’t answer me what I really asked him. Like, how are you going to help? How are you going to save my kid if something happens?” Martinez said. “He didn’t give me what I wanted to hear.”
Admittedly, Martinez said, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to hear. He just knows he wasn’t reassured.
“I just wanted to hear something to make my mind change,” he said.