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Uvalde schools police chief placed on leave as shooting inquiry deepens

Uvalde School Police Chief Pete Arredondo speaks at a news conference on May 24. (Mikala Compton/Via Reuters)

The Uvalde, Tex., school police chief accused of bungling the response to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary last month was placed Wednesday on an administrative leave amid growing furor over law enforcement delays in breaching the classroom.

Hal Harrell, the schools superintendent in the South Texas town, announced Pedro “Pete” Arredondo’s leave a day after the director of Texas’s Department of Public Safety lambasted the chief for his slow response to the shootingincluding allegedly waiting for a key to an unlocked door before entering the room over an hour after arriving on the scene.

“From the beginning of this horrible event, I shared that the district would wait until the investigation was complete before making personnel decisions,” Harrell wrote. “Today, I am still without details of the investigations being conducted by various agencies. Because of the lack of clarity that remains and the unknown timing of when I will receive the results of the investigations, I have made the decision to place Chief Arredondo on administrative leave.”

Arredondo’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

A veteran of several law enforcement agencies around Texas, Arredondo had for the last two years served as the chief of the Uvalde school district’s six-officer police department, which oversees security for eight schools around the city — including Robb Elementary, which he said he attended decades ago.

Texas Department of Public Safety officials said that as “incident commander” during the attack, Arredondo disregarded decades of accepted law enforcement practice by not deciding to enter the classroom sooner.

The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety on June 21 blamed the school district police chief for the long delay before police entered Robb Elementary. (Video: The Washington Post)

Arredondo has disputed parts of that account, telling the Texas Tribune that he did not consider himself the scene’s commander and that the classroom door was locked. State police are now investigating why it took authorities so long to gain entry into two adjoining classrooms.

Family members of victims had implored local officials to fire Arredondo at public meetings this week, some of the speakers so overtaken with emotion that they struggled to finish their sentences.

“We were failed by Pete Arredondo. He failed our kids, teachers, parents and city,” Brett Cross, the uncle of 10-year-old Uziyah Garcia, told school board members on Monday night. “By keeping him on your staff, y’all are continuing to fail us.”

Berlinda Arreola, the grandmother of Amerie Jo Garza, said at a city council meeting Tuesday that it had been a “slap in the face” to see Arredondo standing at media briefings following the shooting.

Arredondo, who recently won a seat on the city council, was sworn in during a private ceremony May 30 but had not appeared at the last two meetings. Other council members voted unanimously Monday not to grant him a leave of absence, putting him at risk of losing his post.

“You do what you have to do, but get him out of our faces,” Arreola said.

The development came as the impacts of the May 24 shooting that left 19 students and two teachers dead continue to ripple across the community. The state Senate held a second day of hearings on the shooting and gun violence on Wednesday. Meanwhile, officials in Uvalde are trying to secure federal funds to demolish the elementary school building.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez (D) said in an interview Wednesday that the South Texas school district has been engaged in conversations about applying to a federal grant program called Project SERV, which stands for “School Emergency Response to Violence,” to raze Robb Elementary School.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re in this space that we have to have a whole federal grant around this,” he said, “but I haven’t seen one parent that’s in favor of keeping it up.”

During the tense city council meeting Tuesday, Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin (R) reiterated his belief that the school building should to be torn down.

“We can never ask a child to go back or teacher to go back into that school, ever,” he said.

He added that the “school will be demolished,” citing his discussions with Harrell. A spokeswoman for the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, which will decide the school’s fate, did not respond to requests for comment.

After the shooting, Uvalde becomes a new stop on a grim American circuit

Robb Elementary, in Uvalde’s working-class southwest side, has served as a central community space for the Mexican American residents in this city of 15,000. Many of them attended Robb decades ago, when it was considered a “Mexican school” that segregated them from White residents on the east side of the city.

Uvalde school district officials have already indicated that no students would be attending Robb in the fall, though they have been quiet on plans for the actual building. The matter did not come up at a school board meeting Monday night.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona previously granted the Uvalde district $1.5 million in SERV funds, which are meant to “restore a sense of safety and security” to students and teachers affected by gun violence. That commitment is specifically meant to fund mental health services and overtime pay for counselors, not construction or medical services, he said in a June 13 letter to Harrell.

Cardona traveled to Uvalde earlier this month to meet with Harrell and Robb Elementary Principal Mandy Gutierrez and attend the funeral for Irma Garcia, one of the two teachers who was killed in the shooting.

“While in Uvalde, I saw the community come together in meaningful ways to support one another and all the families who lost loved ones,” he wrote in the letter. “As a nation, we must do everything we can to support the well-being of our children and educators.”

Previous SERV grants have gone to the school districts overseeing Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe High School near Houston, all of which were the site of major school shootings in the past decade.

Gutierrez said that school districts can apply for up to $45 million from the grant program.

Sandy Hook Elementary school was demolished in 2013, a year after a shooting left 20 children and six adults dead. Students at Santa Fe returned to their school building less than two weeks after eight students and two teachers were killed inside it.

Armed Uvalde officers waited for key to unlocked door, official says

The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety on Tuesday criticized the police response to the massacre as “an abject failure.” Steven C. McCraw described in damning detail how officers quickly made it into the school, carrying shields and weapons, but left children trapped with an attacker as they waited for a key to an unlocked door.

During testimony before state lawmakers, McCraw painted a bleak timeline that outlined repeated police and school security lapses during the May 24 attack.

“The officers had weapons; the children had none. The officers had body armor; the children had none. The officers had training; the subject had none,” McCraw said in the session at the Capitol in Austin.

Arelis R. Hernández, Timothy Bella and Mark Berman contributed to this report.