For want of a nail the shoe was lost,Old English saying
for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
for want of a horse the knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
The mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, has been the proverbial grain of sand that, in falling, has caused an avalanche of action toward making our schools safer. The media coverage has focused on guns and the police response. In the following, I’ll use the old saw above to provide a slightly different framing of what happened. There are aspects of this sad incident that have broader implications and applications in our communities.
In what follows, I’m using the publicly available information as of this date. Some details may later be found inaccurate, but the big picture is unlikely to change. The interpretation of the events and their context are mine.
Nails (linchpins and keys)
Several organizations work together to provide security to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District. The District has its own seven-person police force, whose officers play a similar role to School Resource Officers. The Chief is also the communications linchpin* between the school district and the Uvalde Police Department, and with the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Department. He is expected to facilitate communications among these organizations so that actions are properly coordinated.
The District’s police department had participated in joint active shooter training exercises with other law enforcement organizations in August, 2020. In March of this year, the District itself hosted a similar joint training exercise for local law enforcement agencies. However, it appears that teachers and staff have not had similar “live” training.
The District has software for monitoring students’ social media accounts and for visitor control. The district also has several security policies and procedures, as well as physical protective measures: fences to limit access to school grounds and doors that can be locked to prevent access to classrooms. District procedure is for classroom teachers to keep their classroom doors locked.
Robb Elementary (now closed permanently) had a chain link fence to limit access and entrance doors that automatically lock when closed. The doors to the classrooms could be locked from the inside; School District security policy states that teachers are to keep them locked. The classroom doors had a steel jamb intended to prevent an outsider from breaking into a classroom. None of the local law enforcement agencies had master keys to open the doors.
Knights and Battle
The shooter, once he turned 18, purchased two AR-15s from a legitimate gun dealer, and over 1600 rounds of ammunition – some in stores and some on-line. On the day of the incident he posted his intent to shoot his grandmother on Facebook. He then shot her about 30 minutes before the carnage at the school began. Though severely injured, the grandmother called 9-1-1; it’s unclear whether she knew of his intent to go to the school.
The shooter then took his grandmother’s car and drove toward the school. He crashed into a ditch and shot at two witnesses coming out of a nearby funeral home. He then apparently scrambled over the chain link fence into the school’s parking lot. At the school, one of the teachers had propped open one of the auto-lock doors with a rock. While closing the door, the teacher saw the shooter crash his car, and start shooting. The teacher then called 9-1-1 reporting that a man with a gun was in the school’s parking lot. Ironically, a patrolling Uvalde police officer heard the 9-1-1 call and pursued a person he thought was the shooter. Unfortunately he was mistaken – he had driven past the shooter.
When the teacher closed the outside door, its lock did not engage, allowing the shooter to enter the building. Shortly thereafter, seven police officers entered the same way, and took gunfire from the shooter. Two of the officers were wounded. The shooter also fired ~100 rounds into a classroom, immediately killing a teacher and several children.
The shooter then closed the door to the classroom, and locked it. The shooter fired a few shots at the door and through the walls of the locked classroom, and then more or less went silent. The School District police chief concluded that the situation had changed and had become a barricaded shooter with hostages incident, and calls were made for tactical equipment to breach the doors.
It is important to note that the School District police chief did not consider himself the Incident Commander. He considered himself to be a first responder and had left his radio and protective vest in his car so that he could move more rapidly. However, as the first police chief on the scene, others expected him to play that role.
Some of the police officers set up a perimeter around the school. Parents had been notified via social media, and asked to go to another location to be reunited with their children. Unfortunately, many parents went directly to the school to retrieve their children. The police officers at the perimeter did everything they could to keep the parents away from the building.
Almost immediately after the shooter locked the door to the classroom, a search for a key began. A rather futile search – apparently a janitor had several key rings with keys but they were unlabeled. No one knew which might be the master. The School District police chief thus had to try each on the door to a classroom across the hall until he found the right one. As a result, police officers were not able to enter the classroom until almost 80 minutes after the gunman entered school grounds.
In the meantime, children in the classroom had managed to call 9-1-1 at least five times, detailing the carnage and asking for help. Since the School District police chief did not have his radio, he knew nothing of these calls.
Kingdom lost, and lessons to be learned
Once the right key was found, a tactical team entered the classroom and killed the shooter. Nineteen elementary school children and two teachers ultimately died. One of the teachers and, perhaps, some of the children who died could have been saved had the police taken down the shooter sooner.
I do not want to second guess the police – I’m not qualified to do that. But there are some clear (and not so clear) lessons that emerge to me as I dig into what happened.
School District police should have had a master key. This likely would have saved the lives of some of those (e.g., one of the teachers who died in an ambulance after the shooter was killed) who were shot but not killed outright. Many school districts ensure that their resource officers or local law enforcement have keys. More generally, schools and other public buildings need to make sure that police and fire and other emergency responders have ready access to their facilities. In particular, it’s good practice to have police and fire personnel do walk-throughs of public buildings. They can point out potential vulnerabilities, and be able to more rapidly and accurately respond to emergency situations. This applies to any building where the public may congregate and which provide a tempting target: schools, libraries, hospitals, government buildings, hotels and event venues. This is a lesson that incidents such as the terrorist attacks on hotels in Mumbai should have hammered home.
It’s laudable that local law enforcement had had an active shooter training exercise in the school just two months before the incident. Clearly though, the exercise did not simulate the actual events that occurred; for example, the shooter locking himself in the classroom. Further, teachers and staff weren’t involved in that training. Teachers – and school librarians, and others in direct contact with large numbers of students at any one time – are truly first responders in these situations. Their instinctive reactions can be crucially important in saving lives. The teacher’s action in propping open the door the shooter entered through was probably wrong; her calls to alert police were certainly correct. Both were instinctive; training hones the instincts and builds mental muscle to make the correct response.
Students also need to have some training – we hold fire drills (we do, don’t we?) and we should provide some age-appropriate instruction for active shooter incidents, as well. For example, very young children need to see policemen in tactical gear – and firemen in firefighting equipment – so that they understand that these aren’t monsters coming after them, but rather potential saviors.
The police have been severely criticized for their efforts to keep parents away from the school. This Monday-morning-quarterbacking is wrong! The social media messaging from the school specifically asked parents not to come to the school because it would potentially put them in danger and hamper the police.
The decision to treat the incident as a “barricaded subject” event once the police realized they didn’t have ready access to the classrooms may have been theoretically incorrect but, in the circumstances, it matched the situation on the ground as they knew it.
The School District police chief has deservedly received a great deal of criticism. As the situation unfolded, he had two overlapping roles to play – Incident Commander and linchpin for communications among all of the law enforcement agencies involved. From his own remarks, it is clear that he did not recognize that, as the first police commander on the scene, he became the Incident Commander. Coordination at the scene devolved into whispered conversations, attempts to negotiate with the shooter, and a shambling scramble to find a key. The School District police chief’s split-second decision to leave his radios in his car meant that he could not act as the linchpin either: he could not be informed that there were still children alive in the classrooms. Had he known this, the decision to treat the event as a “barricaded subject” situation might have been changed.
More generally, we too often ignore how important linchpins are in our communities, especially in crises. They may not be leaders (as the School District police chief was supposed to be here), but they are always the key connectors that hold our communities together. 9-1-1 operators, the complaint departments for our road and water systems are important – and often overlooked – parts of what we call our community’s social capital. By explicitly recognizing them and their importance, we can strengthen our communities. And by recognizing a lack of linchpins, and filling those gaps, we can help community leaders make better decisions. In this event, one man – flawed as all of us are flawed – didn’t understand his role. Tragically, his misunderstanding may have cost lives.
In the coming months, I intend to do a deeper dive into “social capital.” Within the research community terms like “social capital” and “bonding, bridging and linking” are too often glibly tossed around. Some researchers massage a mixture of measures with statistics, trying to torture out whether one community has more social capital than another. Lost in this effort is a simple truth: a community’s social capital is all about people and their connections to one another. The statistics mask the trust or distrust, the respect or disrespect, and the laughter and the tears that mark all connections between real people. I firmly believe that building a community’s social capital must be rooted in this simple truth, and want to explore this further with you.
*In systems science, linchpin connections are what social scientists call bridging or linking social capital. These are simply boundary-spanning connections from one system – here the School District’s police department, to other systems – the other law enforcement organizations involved. The linchpin in this context is the member of the School District’s police department who is connected to the other law enforcement agencies. If we think of communities as small worlds, then linchpins are crucial elements for rapid and accurate communications.