UVALDE, Texas (AP) — Teachers and students at Robb Elementary School knew the safety protocols when an 18-year-old with an AR-15 style rifle entered the building in May. Dozens of times in the previous four months alone, the campus had gone into lockdown or issued security alerts.
Not because of active shooter scares — because of nearby, often high-speed pursuits of migrants coming from the U.S.-Mexico border.
An entire generation of students in America has grown up simulating lockdowns for active shooters, or worse, experiencing the real thing. But in South Texas, another unique kind of classroom lockdown occurs along the state's 1,200-mile southern border: hunkering down because Border Patrol agents or state police are chasing migrants who are trying to evade apprehension.
The frequency of lockdowns and security alerts in Uvalde — nearly 50 between February and May alone, according to school officials — are now viewed by investigators as one of the tragic contributors to how a gunman was able to walk into a fourth-grade classroom unobstructed and slaughter 19 children and two teachers. Although a slow and bungled police response remains the main failure, a damning new report by the Texas House says recurring lockdowns in Uvalde created a “diminished sense of vigilance."
With a new school year now just weeks away in heavily patrolled South Texas, there are worries the lockdowns will resume and deepen the trauma for scarred students in Uvalde, as migrant crossings remain high and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott continues expanding a massive border security operation.
“That’s what it probably was, just complacency, because it does happen on a frequent basis," said Uvalde County Justice of the Peace Eulalio “Lalo” Diaz Jr., who had to identify the bodies of the dead at Robb Elementary.
The new findings that a culture of lockdowns in Uvalde played some role in the failures on May 24 reflects how one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history intersected with immigration policies and thousands of Border Patrol agents, National Guard members and state police assigned to apprehend migrants and stop drug traffickers. Of the nearly 400 law enforcement officers at the scene of Robb Elementary, more than half were Border Patrol agents or state police, according to the report.
On Tuesday, over the span of just 20 minutes, eight state police vehicles and Border Patrol SUVs cruised through Uvalde’s central square, less than a mile from Robb Elementary.
Uvalde is about an hour's drive from the border with Mexico, located at the crossroads of two major state highways. Nearby are the cities of Pearsall, Dilley and Karnes – all of which have immigration detention centers with some of the nation’s highest populations. More than 4,500 detainees in total were at the three facilities as of June 2022, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University
Jazmin Cazares, whose 9-year-old sister Jacklyn was among the students killed, told Texas lawmakers in June that no one in the school district took lockdowns seriously “until that day." She said she is now terrified to return for her senior year in the fall.
“Am I going to survive it? Unbelievable,” Cazares said.
Even the first officers on scene at Robb Elementary wondered whether the threat was a so-called “bailout" — the term used by law enforcement along the border to describe suspected migrants or drug traffickers who have fled. Pete Arrendondo, the embattled Uvalde school police chief who has become the target of angry demands by parents to resign or be fired, told the House committee the thought crossed his mind since it happens so often.
The gunman entered Robb Elementary at 11:33 a.m. One minute earlier, according to the report, a fourth-grade teacher in Room 105 received a lockdown alert and made sure her classroom door was locked. That teacher also told the committee she saw a teacher across the hall locking the door in Room 112, one of two adjoining rooms where the shooting occurred.
The shooter is believed to have entered the classroom through Room 111, which was known to have trouble locking properly.
The signal the school’s alert system sends out does not specify the potential threat. And because of the prevalence of lockdowns in recent months, according to the report, many teachers and administrators “assumed it was another bailout.”
"Bailouts” has become an increasingly common part of Uvalde’s vernacular in the last year as the area has become extraordinarily busy with migrants crossing illegally, largely from countries outside Mexico and northern Central America.
The Border Patrol sector based in Del Rio, Texas – one of nine along the Mexican border – was the most transited corridor for illegal crossings in June, replacing Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. For much of the year, the two South Texas sectors have posted similar numbers of border encounters, well ahead of the others in California, Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas.
While many migrants turn themselves in to the Border Patrol in the border towns of Del Rio and Eagle Pass – each about an hour’s drive from Uvalde – many seek to elude capture for hours or days, hiding in “stash houses” or in tall fields of corn and other crops for smugglers to pick them up at a previously agreed location for the drive to San Antonio.
The committee report said there had been no incidents of “bailout-related" violence on Uvalde school campuses before the shooting. High-speed driving sometimes crossed school parking lots, according to the report, which also said some pursuits involved firearms in surrounding neighborhoods.
Diaz, the Uvalde justice of the peace, serves as a magistrate when police make arrests in the area as part of the governor's massive border mobilization known as Operation Lone Star. He sets bail for people taken into custody for alleged human or drug smuggling, but also for crimes unrelated to national security, like minor drug charges.
He said Abbott’s operation hasn’t made Uvalde safer.
“These people who are coming through don’t want to be in Uvalde,” said Diaz. “They are looking to get away from the border and we’re too close.”
Over the last decade, many police departments have shifted away from having officers engage in car chases because they are a danger to the public. A 2017 report from the Justice Department found that between 1996 and 2015 police pursuits killed an average of 355 people annually, with nearly a third of those killed in vehicles not involved in the chases.
Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin, who said he has not spoken to Abbott for nearly a month, has called on the governor to do even more on the border to curb migrant crossings. With classes set to re-start in less than two months, he worries about “the bailouts by the schools and so forth” and said "it needs to stop.”
Angie Villescaz, who grew up in Uvalde and after the shooting founded the Latina mothers advocacy group Fierce Madres with local moms, said the border rhetoric is a distraction the most pressing issue.
“They've always wanted to keep the narrative about securing the border,” Villescaz said, “and now they can't because it's about securing our schools.”