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Sunday August 14th, 2022 9:36PM

Uvalde school police chief says he’s still cooperating

By The Associated Press
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The school district police chief who served as on-site commander during last week's deadly shooting in Uvalde, Texas, said Wednesday that he's talking daily with investigators, contradicting claims from state law enforcement that he has stopped cooperating.

In a brief interview, Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo told CNN that he's speaking regularly with Texas Department of Public Safety investigators.

"I’ve been on the phone with them every day,” Arredondo said. The chief has been the focus of ire in the community and beyond over allegations that he delayed sending officers into the school on May 24, believing that the gunman was barricaded inside adjoining classrooms and the shooting had morphed into a hostage situation.

Nineteen children and two teachers died in the attack at Robb Elementary School, the deadliest school shooting in nearly a decade. Funerals began this week, and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona attended Wednesday's services for teacher Irma Garcia, who was killed in the attack, and her husband, Joe Garcia, who died of a heart attack two days later.

The district announced Wednesday that students and staff would not return to that campus, though plans were still being finalized on where the less than 600 students would attend classes in the fall.

Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez said Wednesday that his office is working with state and federal agencies to request upwards of $45 million in federal funding for the school.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, its School Emergency Response to Violence, known as Project SERV, “funds short-term education-related services” to help educational facilities “recover from a violent or traumatic event in which the learning environment has been disrupted.”

Gutierrez said he is unaware of any plans to tear down Robb Elementary but that funds obtained through the program by other schools have traditionally been used to rebuild.

State officials have said police waited for more than an hour outside the classroom where Salvador Ramos, 18, opened fire, despite repeated pleas from children calling 911 for help. At one point there were as many as 19 officers in the hallway, Steven McCraw, the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin told media outlets in a Wednesday interview that he’d arrived at the funeral home across the street from the school about 15 minutes after “the first call” came that Ramos had crashed his truck nearby. McLaughlin said that while at the funeral home, he was standing near an official he identified only as “the negotiator.” He said that person unsuccessfully tried to reach the gunman via cellphone.

“His main goal was to try to get this person on the phone,” McLaughlin said in the interview with Telemundo San Antonio and The Washington Post. “They tried every number they could find,” but the gunman did not pick up the phone.

Travis Considine, chief communications officer for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Tuesday that Arredondo had not responded to DPS requests for two days, while other officers in the Uvalde city and schools police departments continue to sit for interviews and provide statements.

Arredondo has not responded to multiple requests for comment from The Associated Press. Considine told AP Wednesday that Arredondo had not responded to Texas Rangers' requests for follow-up interviews as of Tuesday. The Texas Rangers — the investigative arm of the Department of Public Safety that focuses on major crimes — have not commented on Arredondo’s insistence he was in regular touch with DPS.

The Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, which represents police officers, has urged its members to cooperate with “all government investigations” into the shooting and police response, and endorsed a federal probe by the Justice Department.

The confusing and sometimes contradictory information released in the week since the deadly shooting continued Tuesday with the revelation that the exterior door used by the gunman was not left propped open by a teacher, as police previously said.

They have now determined that the teacher, who has not been identified, propped the door open with a rock, but then removed the rock and closed the door when she realized there was a shooter on campus, Considine said. But, Considine said, the door that was designed to lock when shut did not lock.

Since the shooting, law enforcement and state officials have struggled to present an accurate timeline and details of the event and how police responded, sometimes providing conflicting information or withdrawing statements hours later. State police have said some accounts were preliminary and could change as more witnesses are interviewed.

On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the state to conduct in-person school district security audits, including random, unannounced “intruder detection” visits to campuses “to find weak points and how quickly they can penetrate buildings without being stopped.”

“This will improve accountability and ensure school districts are following the plans they create,” Abbott said in a letter to the head of the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. Texas has more than 1,200 school districts, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Abbott also asked top lawmakers to convene a legislative committee to examine and make recommendations on “school safety, mental health, social media, police training, firearm safety and more.” The next Texas legislative session is scheduled for January 2023, although some lawmakers have urged Abbott to call a special session in response to the shooting.

After previous mass shootings at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe High School and a Walmart in El Paso, Abbott convened “roundtable” discussions, sometimes involving survivors and victims’ families.

After the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School, lawmakers in 2019 approved $100 million for schools to improve campus safety with metal detectors, vehicle barriers, shooter alarms systems and other safety measures. They also allowed more teachers to carry guns on campus and be trained in campus shooter response.

But Abbott and state lawmakers resisted calls for stricter gun ownership measures. In 2021, Abbott signed into law a measure that allows people 21 and older to carry handguns without a license or training. In Uvalde on Wednesday, Ramos’ mother was denied service at the drive-thru. Adriana Reyes then walked into an adjacent convenience store where the cashier said she would not be served.

She declined to speak with an Associated Press reporter on the scene, saying: “I don’t want to be rude but I don’t want to say anything.”

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More on the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas: https://apnews.com/hub/uvalde-school-shooting

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Vertuno reported from Austin, Texas. Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Uvalde; Jake Bleiberg in Dallas; and Acacia Coronado in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.

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