“Kindness takes courage!” read rainbow letters written by Alithia Ramirez, a fourth grader at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In the corner of her contest-winning poster, a round yellow sun looks on, cross-eyed, over a cloud of forbidden words: “Fat! Loser. Ugly. Dumb.” Each is circled and eliminated with a slash. At the top of the poster, Ramirez wrote a hashtag embellished with an extra smile: “#End Bullying.”
The Uvalde City School District has its own police department — staffed with a chief, five cops, and a security guard — which participates in anti-bullying initiatives, including the poster contest Ramirez won. Absent meaningful gun reform, advocates and lawmakers often call for changes that seem more attainable: less bullying and more cops.
This is Alithia Ramirez, 10. She was a 4th grader at #RobbElementary.
Her dad says she loved to draw and wanted to be an artist, and even submitted a drawing to Doodle for Google.
I met him yesterday when he was waiting for answers. I was really hoping he'd get a different one. pic.twitter.com/xEaJe0obxR
— Garrett Brnger (@BrngerReports) May 25, 2022
Despite the school and the police’s best efforts, an 18-year-old high school student was able to purchase an AR-15 firearm — as soon as he became of age, in a state that does not require a license to carry — and use it to massacre 19 elementary school children and two of their teachers in Uvalde. And although the shooter had crashed his car and been “engaged by law enforcement,” before entering the school, he still made it inside.
The Associated Press reported Thursday morning that parents urged police on the scene to follow the shooter into the school after seeing him rush inside with his rifle. When they didn’t, some parents attempted to enter themselves, but the police stopped them. A video from the scene shows one cop pinning a person to the ground while another brandishes a stun gun. One of the children who survived told local news station KENS 5 that an officer instructed them to yell “help” if they needed it — and one of the kids who did was discovered and killed by the shooter.
Police training records released to The Intercept on June 1 reveal that Pete Arredondo, the school district police chief, had received active shooter training. According to The New York Times, which reported on the training materials on May 27, the protocol advises cops that “they will usually need to place themselves in harm’s way and ‘display uncommon acts of courage to save the innocent.’” The records obtained by The Intercept show that Arredondo, who ordered responders on the scene not to enter the building, underwent active shooter training annually from 2019 to 2021.
The records do not reflect that either Victor Escalon, an official with the Texas Department of Safety, or Daniel Rodriguez, the Uvalde Police Chief, had received the training. In the wake of the shooting, both have spoken on behalf of the police.
As the number of school resource officers has ballooned over the last two decades, so has the number of school shootings. There is no evidence that police have the ability to stop these shootings from happening. “The idea that a standard armed school police officer is gonna stop someone in that situation has proven not to be true, time and time again,” said Alex Vitale, a sociologist at the City University of New York and the author of “The End of Policing,” who noted that police and security guards are often the first casualties in mass shooting events.
Nevertheless, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said “it is a fact” that due to the quick response of law enforcement officials, “they were able to save lives. Unfortunately, not enough,” in a press conference Wednesday. Abbott went on to list more than 20 state and federal agencies, including more than two dozen law enforcement agencies, involved in responding to the shooting. (These included immigration enforcement agencies housed under the Department of Homeland Security, which promised to refrain from deporting and arresting people in the area “to the fullest extent possible” for the time being.)
A flurry of early coverage quickly identified the shooter as a “victim of bullying” and speculated about mental health issues, even though he had no publicly known diagnosis. “Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge,” Abbott said Wednesday, though he soon contradicted himself by adding that in this case, “there was no known mental health history.”
Lawmakers concerned about bullying leading to violence in schools might consider that members of law enforcement themselves are often the ones bullying students. “Cops are authorized to use force in a way that teachers and school administrators are not,” Radley Balko wrote for the Washington Post in 2018, in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. “If administrators increasingly turn to on-site police officers to discipline students, that means more kids will be handcuffed, Tased and beaten.”
Though school shootings are both incredibly traumatic and increasing — there have been more than two dozen in the U.S. this year — they are still statistically rare, Vitale pointed out. “So what are those [school] police officers actually doing all day every day? Since they’re not preventing school shootings? They’re harassing kids, searching kids, waging a war on drugs, engaged in criminalizing disciplinary problems. And the burden of that falls most heavily on disabled kids, kids of color, and LGBTQ kids in the form of harassment and arrest. That’s what actual everyday school police do.”
“Law enforcement cannot react quick enough to stop these things every time. So we’re gonna need people on the ground, whether they’re trained police officers or whether they are people that are trained in the school,” Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday night on Fox News, urging viewers to support the arming of schoolteachers.
“The idea that a teacher with a gun is going to stop someone with a semi-automatic or automatic weapon wearing body armor is ludicrous,” Vitale said.
In January, Uvalde city police received a half-million-dollar grant from the state’s controversial Operation Lone Star program, which Abbott launched last March, deploying thousands of soldiers to the state’s southern border. The grant came on top of the department’s existing $4 million budget — just under 40 percent of the city’s general fund. Federal funding for school resource officers comes from the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program under the Department of Justice, which provides more than half a billion dollars each year for state and local law enforcement, including more than $50 million to a school violence prevention program.
After officers from the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department engaged the shooter, Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Erick Estrada told CNN, “Unfortunately he was able to enter the premises and then from there, that’s when he went on and entered several classrooms and started shooting his firearm.”
As mass shootings in the U.S. continue to rise, both Democratic and Republican federal and local officials have prioritized additional police presence instead of stricter gun laws, which have become increasingly permissive. And at the same time, efforts to arm teachers have caused additional violence. After the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the state passed a law allowing teachers to be armed in the classroom. Shortly afterward, there were several incidents — including in California, Virginia, and Florida — of armed teachers and school resource officers accidentally firing their weapons or injuring students.
“Police are really in schools because they are the most effective tool for the state at controlling young Black and brown people.”
If anti-bullying and mental health initiatives are to be taken seriously as a solution, they should be pursued outside a law enforcement context, according to civil and human rights groups like the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national coalition focused on stopping the school-to-prison pipeline. Putting more cops in schools won’t make kids safer but will further criminalize them, says Kesi Foster, co-executive director at Partners for Dignity and Rights, an organization that works to advance economic and social rights in housing, education, and labor.
Police have been used in schools for more than half a century, at least since the 1950s. When schools became a place for students to struggle over their rights during the civil rights movement, Foster said, “that’s when we really saw the large influx of police and police programs in schools. … Police are really in schools because they are the most effective tool for the state at controlling young Black and brown people.”
“There’s no evidence that we’re aware of — would love to see it if it exists — of having police in schools as a way to make schools safer or prevent school shootings,” said Marc Schindler, co-author of an April 2021 Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute report on school policing. Schindler is also executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit criminal justice group. In schools with police, kids are more likely to be suspended and expelled, Schindler said, “and more likely to be referred to the justice system, the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, for behavior that is not necessarily appropriate to be referred to the justice system. We’re talking about behavior that years ago, when I was in school, would be more likely to be handled in the principal’s office.”
“What does keep schools safe is having more well trained mental health counselors, social workers, and alternative resolution dispute programs.”
“What does keep schools safe is having more well trained mental health counselors, social workers, and alternative resolution dispute programs,” Schindler said. But schools already lack the resources for necessary mental health services and social supports, and education budgets have been slashed while police funding continues to climb. Police officers usually cost more than counselors and social workers, Schindler added, so “you’re paying people more to do this job.”
And while mass school shootings have historically been perpetrated by young white males in majority-white schools, he added, the negative consequences of increased policing in schools disproportionately fall on Black and brown students.
Reports have noted that the Uvalde shooter was socially isolated, bullied, and had exhibited violent behavior, but the assumption that mental strife leads to gun violence is a dangerous scapegoat. “Blaming mental illness for mass shootings inflicts a damaging stigma on the millions of people who suffer from clinical afflictions, the vast majority of whom are not violent,” wrote Mark Follman, a Mother Jones editor and the author of “Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America,” in the Los Angeles Times last week. “Extensive research shows the link between mental illness and violent behavior is small and not useful for predicting violent acts.”
“Instead of marshaling a robust preventative intervention, we wait until the problem expresses itself as a mass killing, and then we microanalyze the police response,” said Vitale. “This is a completely backwards way to approach the problem. Because policing is an inherently inadequate response to these things. By the time the shooting starts, the police intervention is going to be reactive. People will already be dead.”
Update: May 26, 2022
This story has been updated to include new details that have emerged about Tuesday’s shooting.
Correction: May 26, 2022
This story now clarifies that police in Uvalde, Texas receive nearly 40 percent of expenditures from the city’s general fund, the main component of the budget.
Update: June 2, 2022
This story has been updated to publicize newly released police training documents.