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Uvalde schools have a safety plan. The shooting showed its limits.

Children run to safety after escaping from a window during a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School where a gunman killed nineteen children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24. (Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader-News)
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Students and teachers in Uvalde were no strangers to lockdowns. The city is just an hour from the U.S.-Mexico border and, according to a teacher, the schools often went into lockdown when authorities were pursuing someone who had fled custody. They had plenty of practice.

Then there was the school system’s security plan. It was multifaceted, addressing everything from student mental health to the possibility of registered sex offenders coming to campus. The district had its own small police force — unusual for a school system of this size — in addition to armed guards. According to the plan, it also hired a private company that provides gun- and drug-sniffing dogs.

Nearly every school in America has prepared for a shooting, with more than 96 percent of public schools holding active-shooter drills. But the deadly massacre in Uvalde — and other school shootings — shows there are limits to that preparedness. A pricey, multilayered security plan can be undone by something as small as an open door and a school police force can fail to prevent a worst-case scenario.

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Some public health experts have concluded that the best way to stop school shootings is to keep guns — and semiautomatic rifles like the one Salvador Ramos had — out of the hands of people intent on killing schoolchildren. But because lawmakers have been reluctant to pass restrictions, it has been left up to schools — and the teachers and children inside them — to figure out how to defend themselves against gunmen who may be more heavily armed than local police officers.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw offered a more detailed timeline of events in a news conference Friday, leading to questions about why the police waited an hour to breach the classroom doors while desperate students called 911. But it also shed some light on how the school’s security systems failed to stop Ramos, a high school dropout who had purchased the guns not long after his 18th birthday.

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According to McCraw, video surveillance shows a teacher propping open an exterior door at 11:27 a.m. May 24. That was right around the time Ramos had crashed a truck into a nearby ditch, and then emerged shooting at bystanders. The teacher then went to their classroom to retrieve a cellphone and at 11:30, though it’s not clear from where, they called 911. Within two minutes, Ramos was firing at the school building, and a school police officer had arrived on the scene.

McCraw did not say what happened to the teacher, but at 11:33 a.m. Ramos had slipped into the school building through the propped open doors. He traveled down a hallway, where he found the classrooms of Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles, a pair of teachers who often co-taught and had adjacent classrooms connected by a bathroom. According to 11-year-old student Miah Cerrillo, who shared her harrowing account with CNN, one teacher went to lock the door but it was too late — the gunman was already there. He said “good night,” and shot her, Miah said.

Ramos was able to pass through both sets of doors despite the district’s security protocol, which calls for schools to lock all exterior doors, and to keep classroom doors closed and locked “at all times.” And even though an officer was on scene by the time he entered the building, lapses by law enforcement meant the gunman was able to lock himself in the classroom for an hour before anyone breached the doors.

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School security experts say it’s important to have multilayered approaches to preventing school shooting deaths because no single approach is foolproof.

According to the Uvalde school system’s security plan, it did have such a system that included school counselors, social workers and special “threat assessment teams” intended to evaluate students who appear to be a threat to themselves or others. It’s not clear if Ramos, who had no record of mental illness, had been on the school’s radar.

In the aftermath of a 2018 school shooting in Santa Fe, Tex., that killed 10, state lawmakers passed a raft of laws intended to prevent the kind of bloodshed that unfolded at Robb Elementary School. State records show Uvalde benefited from a $69,000 grant in 2020 to update its security. The district had also doubled its spending on security in the 2019-2020 school year, spending $445,000, though budget documents did not detail how the money was spent.

A school spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the school’s security plan.

After the shooting, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) sought to blame the Uvalde shooting on the fact that the exterior door was unlocked, and argued schools should have only a single entrance — a proposal immediately shot down as impractical by many school officials.

“You want to talk about how we could have prevented the horror that played out across the street?” Cruz said Wednesday in Uvalde. “Look, the killer entered here the same way the killer entered in Santa Fe: through a back door, an unlocked back door.”

Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, said when he does a security assessment at a school, he often finds exterior doors are unlocked. It’s a slip-up that is widespread but also almost never has serious consequences. And when it comes to classroom doors, it can be impractical to keep them closed, with students filtering in and out all day, he said.

“One of the most common complaints we have from the administrators who hire us and bring us in is that they struggle within their own environment to deal with people who are propping open doors,” Trump said.

As bullets ricocheted around him, a Texas student found safety in silence

But it can be a simple but effective tool in minimizing the harm a school shooter can inflict. In school shootings where the killing is indiscriminate, Trump said shooters have in many cases passed by classrooms that were closed and locked.

In the fall of 2017, an elementary school in rural Northern California locked down when staff heard gunshots. A man with an AR-15-style rifle shot through doors and unsuccessfully attempted to open several classroom doors. He was thwarted, and left the school before killing himself. Still, Superintendent Richard Fitzpatrick called for “sensible gun control.”

“We are largely powerless from determined shooters with high-capacity, high-velocity, semi- ­automatic assault rifles,” he said in a 2018 survey on school shootings by The Washington Post.

Securing school buildings and classrooms does little good for students in courtyards or outside of schools, and it does not help when the threat comes from the inside — from students who arrive at school with guns. It also leaves students in hallways stranded. And in some schools, classroom doors don’t have locks, or need to be left open to cool down rooms that don’t have air conditioning. According to federal data, about 40 percent of schools did not have locks on classroom doors in the 2019-2020 school year.

Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at New Mexico State University, published a paper in 2019 with a colleague that reviewed research on efforts to prevent school shootings. Their survey “failed to find any programs or practices with evidence indicating that they reduced such firearm violence.”

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Khubchandani said without meaningful gun control, the cycle of violence, horror and spending on security is unlikely to change.

“This will be never-ending cycle of resource consumption by schools that will have more and more physical engineering because you have more guns than people now,” Khubchandani said. “Where does it end?”

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