Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made a point to hail the “quick response” of “valiant local officials” in the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, this week. But as new details about the police response emerged Thursday, and questions about why it took officers 14 minutes to enter the building, that praise became more complicated—underscoring a dynamic that was in plain view at the governor’s press conference the day before.
On Wednesday, Abbott had yet again gone before TV cameras after a mass shooting to deliver details about the tragedy, and express condolence for the victims—just as he had in 2018 after the Sante Fe High School shooting, and in 2019 after the shooting at an El Paso Walmart. In addition to calling for better access to mental health care, the governor focused on heaping praise on the actions of law-enforcement officers—repeatedly commending the armed first-responders for their bravery, and speaking about the psychological toll the shooting could have on them.
“As horrible as what happened [was], it could have been worse. The reason it was not worse is because law enforcement officials did what they do,” Abbott said, praising officers’ “quick response” while speaking at a press conference on Wednesday. “They showed amazing courage by running toward gunfire.” Abbott initially said that school police officers “engaged” the gunman before he entered the school, but a new timeline of events later contradicted that.
Notably absent from Abbott’s press conference Wednesday: Praise for the educators who shielded their students and died beside them in two classrooms where the gunman barricaded himself for an hour.
That didn’t sit well with Clay Robison, spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, who says he watched Abbott’s press conference with dismay. “He expressed a lot of sympathy for the families, which you expect him to do, and for law enforcement, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But he should have talked more about educators,” Robison says. “We were disappointed that he didn’t.”
Abbott’s focus on the police became especially jarring given the developments on Thursday. Some parents of Robb Elementary students are questioning whether police could have done more. On Thursday, the Texas Department of Public Safety said the gunman entered the building “unobstructed,” and there was no officer on campus when the shooting began.
Local police, including school resource officers, took about 14 minutes to confront the gunman after he arrived outside the school armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle, according to details from Victor Escalon, Southeast Regional Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. It was not until about an hour later that a U.S. Border Patrol tactical team arrived and killed him.
As Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan—all Republicans—focused on law-enforcement officers at the press conference Wednesday, it fell to Uvalde superintendent Hal Harrell to emphasize the role that educators played in protecting students on Tuesday. “They are heroes. They did heroic things yesterday,” he said at the news conference.
The two teachers who were killed—Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia—had taught at the school for many years and had children of their own who attended school in the district, Harrell said. “They poured their heart and soul into what they did in educating our kids in Uvalde,” he said.
According to their school profiles, both women were fourth-grade teachers. Garcia taught at Robb Elementary for 23 years and has four children of her own. Her husband of 24 years, Joe Garcia, died Thursday of what family members described as “a broken heart.” Mireles had been teaching for 17 years, and her husband is a school police officer in the district.
Mireles’ daughter shared memories about her mother in a Facebook post. “I will forever say your name so you are always remembered, Eva Mireles, 4th grade teacher at Robb Elementary who selflessly jumped in front of her students to save their lives,” she wrote. “Mom, you are a hero.”
Meanwhile Abbott, flanked by law enforcement officers and state and local officials, chastised anyone Wednesday who would “oversimplify” the tragedy by focusing on gun laws—all while making clear that gun safety reform was off the table, despite the fact that Texas has suffered six mass shootings since he took office in 2015. “It’s not a real solution,” Abbott said.
His opposition to gun control wasn’t always quite so strong. After the 2018 Santa Fe school shooting in which 10 people were killed, Abbott suggested he would support some gun reform legislation—mentioning background checks and strategies to keep guns out of the hands of those who “pose an immediate danger to others.” But Texas gun laws have only grown more relaxed. In 2019, one day after a gunman killed seven people in Odessa, Texas, the state enacted nine pro-gun laws that made it easier to carry or store firearms in places like foster homes, schools, churches, mosques, and synagogues. Last year, Abbott signed seven laws loosening gun restrictions even further.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Abbott—who is up for reelection in November—pointed to the laws passed by the state after Santa Fe—which included requirements that school districts develop emergency plans and behavioral threat assessment teams, and measures that “hardened” schools, increasing the presence of law enforcement officers on campus and allowing districts to train and arm school employees.
But none of those measures stopped the 18-year-old gunman in Uvalde from purchasing two semi-automatic rifles and 375 rounds of ammunition at a sporting goods store, walking into an elementary school, and killing 21 people.
That unwillingness to budge on gun-safety reform is frustrating for many educators, who have become all too familiar with school shooting drills and lockdown protocols. Teachers, Robison says, “have always known that, sooner or later, this could happen to them.” It’s why many education groups, as well as other gun-safety advocates, are once again calling for state and federal action on gun legislation.
People across Texas and the U.S. have been reminded this week—with or without Abbott’s help—of the heroism of teachers. But Robison points out that appreciation can only do so much.
“It’s one thing to express sympathy for the families and to praise the heroism of law enforcement officers,” Robison says. “But when are you going to do something that maybe helps keep stuff like this from happening again? Where you don’t have to grieve with the families?”
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