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Bizarre legal oddity may have played role in Uvalde tragedy

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

A choice made by the small Texas town’s school district could be to blame for the confused police response to the shooting

Last Tuesday, May 24, saw the deadliest school shooting in America since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. The shooter, whom police identified as eighteen-year old Salvador Ramos, arrived at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, reportedly remained outside the school for several minutes while taking potshots at nearby observers and firing at the building. He eventually entered the school and reportedly shot dozens of students and teachers, with nineteen children and two teachers reported dead.

What has baffled not only the Uvalde community but also commentators nationwide is the sheer length of time that elapsed between the beginning of the attack and law enforcement finally confronting the shooter, which led to his death. According to NBC News, approximately eighty minutes went by from the time the shooter entered the school to the time he was shot by police. During this time, while parents of Robb Elementary students gathered outside and “urg[ed] the police who were holding them at bay to go in and stop the carnage,” police appeared bewilderingly, appallingly passive.

There may be a basic reason for the excessive delay that has gone mostly unappreciated: a confused and unwieldy division of jurisdiction.

According to the Texas School Safety Center, the state of Texas allows schools to maintain police presence in one of four ways. Two of the options (which Texas calls the “Marshall Program” and “Guardian Plan”) essentially involve deputizing school employees to carry guns, either on a full time or part-time basis, respectively. And for those who want a dedicated police presence, the most common option is, perhaps, the most obvious: contracting with the local police department to provide officers on-site. Until very recently, that was exactly the method Uvalde used.

But several years ago, Uvalde’s school district – officially, Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District – established its own, tiny police department, separate and independent from Uvalde PD. Texas refers to this option as an “ISD Police Department.” While still less common than the alternatives, this method for policing schools is growing in popularity. In Uvalde, the decision to create an ISD police department was made, in part, as a response to rising fears of school shooting incidents exactly like the one that eventually occurred. However, as reported by the New York Times, “scheduling conflicts and discussions about costs” also fed into the decision to establish the new department. The immediate consequence of this move was that school security was taken out of the hands of the ordinary city police and placed under the jurisdiction of the new, and minuscule, ISD department.

If the Uvalde CISD’s decision was indeed motivated by fears of an attack, it must be seen as a horrifically ill-considered one. The newly-created department, charged with policing eight schools across the district, employs a mere six officers. The very nature of their jobs ensures that these officers are more used to dealing with truants and searching for contraband than with violent crime, let alone the kind of life-or-death scenarios that tragically unfolded last Tuesday. While school-specific officers receive training in responding to school shooting scenarios, in crisis conditions there is very little substitute for experience dealing with crises. And yet it was the school district’s tiny police force that found itself in command of the scene.

Law enforcement, like military command, is hierarchical, and the chain of command is strictly observed. Jurisdiction cannot pass from one agency to another without the express order of the “incident commander” – in this case, the chief of the school district’s police. For reasons unknown perhaps even to the officer in charge, the ISD police refused to hand the reins to either Uvalde PD or to Border Patrol, both of whom had officers on the scene well before law enforcement finally moved to breach the door and engage the shooter, and both of whom were almost certainly better situated to assume control.

There are difficulties associated with any method of policing schools – as critics of the more usual approach of arranging for ordinary patrol officers to take shifts at schools note, having police rotate in and out of school duty and more typical law enforcement duties can contribute to an authoritarian air at the schools, since police more used to dealing with adult suspects may tend to treat students like criminals. But it is hard to see the sense in having school districts organize their own police forces, especially as they will likely be – as they were in Uvalde – undermanned and underprepared for worst-case scenarios.

With the Robb Elementary shooting taking its place alongside other high-profile atrocities in the collective consciousness of Americans, it is likely that many school officials, parents, and law enforcement organizations will be thinking about how they can be better prepared to prevent and respond to the unthinkable. Many Americans are understandably frightened and anxious about the potential for copycats. Perhaps some will even be tempted to adopt a similar policy to Uvalde CISD, under the impression that maintaining a dedicated police force will shore up security. But decisions made in fear often offer only the illusion of safety, rather than the substance. Proliferating unwieldy organizational structures is unlikely to help. At Uvalde, at least, it seems much rather to have hurt.

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