3 takeaways from Texas’s investigation of the Uvalde school shooting

Mementos decorate a makeshift memorial to the victims of a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on June 30, 2022. | Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

These preventable failures cost Uvalde students and teachers their lives.

We now know more about the costly sequence of errors that allowed a shooter to kill 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in May.

A 77-page report by a Texas House investigative committee published on Sunday doesn’t point fingers at any one person aside from the shooter. But it did find “systemic failures” and “egregiously poor decision making,” based on the accounts of 35 witnesses and thousands of documents.

The report shows there were early signs that the shooter was planning to commit violence, that the school was unprepared in basic ways for the possibility of a shooting, and that police failed to act quickly enough or in accordance with their active shooter training to neutralize the attack. And it provides evidence for some of the policy solutions often backed by experts — including early intervention programs and certain security measures to block shooters’ access to schools and classrooms — and evidence for what doesn’t work, including “good guys with guns.”

Here are some key takeaways from the report, and policies that could prevent similar errors in the future:

1) Early intervention might have stopped the shooter

Though the shooter didn’t have a criminal history and had never been arrested, there were warning signs that suggested he was struggling and, later, that he presented an imminent danger to himself and others. We’ll never know whether early intervention might have stopped the shooting from happening. But the report paints a clear picture of someone with a troubled childhood who was widely suspected of having violent ambitions in the months leading up to the attack.

The shooter consistently had poor performance in school, suffered from a speech impediment for which he never received any special education services, and was bullied starting as early as the fourth grade. Beginning in 2018, he started logging more than 100 absences annually and had “failing grades and increasingly dismal performance on standardized and end-of-course exams,” according to the report. It’s not clear whether any school resource officers ever visited his home in an effort to bring him back to school. He didn’t have much of a disciplinary history but was suspended on one occasion for “mutual combat” with another student in late 2018. As a result, Uvalde High School forced him to withdraw before he could complete 10th grade.

After that, he struggled to keep a job, getting fired from positions at Whataburger and Wendy’s, and became increasingly isolated. His mother’s ex-boyfriend described him as a “loner who punched holes in the walls of his room after arguments with her.” His ex-girlfriend recounted how he was teased by friends who called him a “school shooter” and how he told her that he wouldn’t live past 18, either because he would commit suicide or because he “wouldn’t live long.” He started telling friends and online acquaintances that he was planning something in May 2022 that would put him “all over the news,” and that led to speculation that he would “shoot up a school or something” or commit “mass murder.” He asked at least two different people to buy guns for him before he was legally permitted to do so, but they refused.

There are several policies that could have provided school officials and members of the Uvalde community with the tools to identify the shooter as a threat and keep him from obtaining deadly weapons. As government studies have shown time and time again, the most effective means of preventing school violence is early behavioral intervention. That’s why gun control advocates have supported threat assessment programs in schools, which can involve establishing tip lines that allow community members to share concerns, training students on warning signs and encouraging them to report potentially violent behavior, and monitoring social media. Schools also need to ensure that at-risk students can access mental health services, including school psychologists, school social workers, school nurses, and school counselors.

The success of threat assessment programs is well-documented. Several studies have found that 0.5 to 3.5 percent of students at schools with such programs have carried out a threat of violence or attempted to do so, and none of those threats are serious threats to kill, shoot, or seriously injure someone. They also have fewer expulsions and suspensions, events that have proven to incite some school shooters.

Another potential preventative solution is red flag laws, or extreme risk laws, that temporarily prevent people who have been found by a court to pose a risk to themselves or others from obtaining a gun. Texas doesn’t currently have a red flag law, but 19 other states — mostly controlled by Democrats, with the exceptions of Florida and Indiana — have adopted such laws. Research has suggested that red flag laws can prevent mass shootings, given that about half of mass shooters tell someone about their plans in advance and exhibit warning signs, such as agitation, abusive behavior, depression, mood swings, an inability to perform daily tasks, and paranoia. Congress’s bipartisan gun control law passed last month allocates $750 million to incentivize states to adopt these laws.

2) The school had a critical security flaw

There’s only so much that schools can do to defend against a determined individual with access to guns. Militarizing public schools doesn’t foster a welcoming learning environment, nor is it particularly cost-effective for taxpayers.

“Installing bulletproof glass in all the windows — stuff like this is hideously expensive and not sensible. There’s only so far you can go to harden a public facility,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland who studies the politics of gun control.

But a simple security upgrade could have made it harder for the shooter to enter the school: ensuring that the doors were locked. There were three exterior doors in the west building where the shooting took place, and all three had been left unlocked, according to the report. The door to one of the classrooms where the shooter took his victims was also known to have a faulty lock, but no one had created a work order to repair it. School staff also frequently propped doors open, especially for substitute teachers who didn’t have their own keys.

The attacker in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was also able to enter school grounds through an unlocked gate and then enter the school through an unlocked door.

As an additional security measure, schools can install doors that lock from the inside, so that teachers don’t have to leave the classroom to lock the door and potentially expose themselves and their students to danger. It also makes it easier for law enforcement to neutralize the threat, so that it’s harder for a shooter to barricade themselves in a classroom. In both the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, teachers had to leave the classroom to lock their doors while the shooters were active.

According to a 2020 survey by the National Center on Education Statistics, one in four US public schools do not have classroom doors with internal locks. An even larger share of Texas schools — 36 percent — don’t have that feature, according to a 2018 survey by Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.

3) Hundreds of “good guys with guns” couldn’t stop the shooter

A total of 376 law enforcement officers — including members of Uvalde police, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and a special unit of the US Border Patrol — arrived at the school, according to the report. They still didn’t breach the classroom and neutralize the shooter for more than an hour.

Based on their active shooter training, they should have acted as quickly as possible to “stop the killing.” That’s because most deaths in mass shootings happen within the first few minutes of an attack.

But law enforcement didn’t act quickly enough in Uvalde and that’s partly because of a tragic, bureaucratic error: No officer stepped forward to assume command. The report said it should have been Uvalde police chief Pete Arredondo, since he was the highest-ranked officer present when he arrived on the scene. But any law enforcement officer can take command, no matter their rank, and they are required to do so as part of their training, according to the report. Officers who were outside the school might not have done so because they were getting bad information on what was happening inside, being told that Arredondo was inside a room with the attacker and actively negotiating.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Republicans and gun rights advocates, including the National Rifle Association, argued that it was evidence more armed guards are needed in schools. That’s part of a pervasive idea that further arming America is the answer to preventing gun violence — the “good guy with a gun” theory. But a 2021 study from Hamline University and Metropolitan State University found that the rate of deaths in 133 mass school shootings between 1980 and 2019 was 2.83 times greater in cases where there was an armed guard present.

And even when there were hundreds of law enforcement officers present in Uvalde, it wasn’t enough to stop one “bad guy with a gun” who, according to the report, likely hadn’t ever previously shot a gun in his life.

“The ‘good guy with a gun theory’ is a myth. It bears essentially no relationship to how people behave in the real world,” Spitzer said.