By ACACIA CORONADO Associated Press
UVALDE, Texas (AP) — The Uvalde school district has fired police chief Pete Arredondo under mounting pressure in the grieving Texas town to punish officers for hesitating for over an hour to storm a classroom and take down the gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers
In a unanimous vote Wednesday evening, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District’s board of trustees fired Arredondo during a meeting also attended by parents and survivors of the May 24 massacre. Arredondo, who was not present, is the first officer to lose his job following one of the deadliest classroom shootings in U.S. history.
His ouster came three months to the day after the tragedy and less than two weeks before students return to school in Uvalde, where some children are still too scared or scarred to go back inside a classroom.
The board faced withering criticism, with one young girl approaching a microphone to to ask why law enforcement hadn’t protected her friends and teachers. “Turn in your badge,” she demanded.
The crowd cheered following the vote, and some parents walked away in tears. Outside, several Uvalde residents called for other officers to be held accountable.
“Coward!” some in the audience yelled as the meeting got underway.
Arredondo, who has been on leave from the district since June 22, has come under the most intense scrutiny of the nearly 400 officers who rushed to school but waited more than 70 minutes to confront the 18-year-old gunman in the fourth-grade classroom at Robb Elementary School.
Most notably, Arredondo was criticized for not ordering officers to act sooner. Col. Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, has said Arredondo was in charge of the law enforcement response to the attack.
Minutes before the school board meeting got underway, Arredondo’s attorney released a scathing 4,500-word letter that amounted to the police chief’s fullest defense to date of his actions. Over 17 defiant pages, Arredondo was described not as a fumbling chief blamed in a damning state investigation for not taking command and wasting time searching for keys to a likely unlocked door, but instead as a brave officer whose level-headed decisions saved the lives of other students.
It alleges that Arredondo warned the district about a variety of security issues in the schools a year before the shooting and asserted he wasn’t in charge of the scene. The letter also accused Uvalde school officials of putting his safety at risk by not allowing him to carry a weapon to the school board meeting, citing “legitimate risks of harm to the public and to Chief Arredondo.”
“Chief Arredondo is a leader and a courageous officer who with all of the other law enforcement officers who responded to the scene, should be celebrated for the lives saved, instead of vilified for those they couldn’t reach in time,” George Hyde wrote.
Hyde’s office has not responded to a request for comment.
Uvalde school officials have been under increasing pressure from victims’ families and members of the community, many of whom had called for Arredondo’s termination. Superintendent Hal Harrell first moved to fire Arredondo in July but postponed the decision at the request of Arredondo’s attorney.
At the meeting was Ruben Torres, father of Chloe Torres, who survived the shooting in room 112 of the school.
“Right now, being young, she is having a hard time handling this horrific event,” Torres said.
Shirley Zamora, the mother of a student at Robb Elementary, said accountability shouldn’t end with Arredondo’s dismissal.
“This is just going to be the beginning. It’s a long process,” she said.
Only one other officer — Uvalde Police Department Lt. Mariano Pargas, who was the city’s acting police chief on the day of massacre — is known to have been placed on leave for their actions during the shooting.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, which had more than 90 state troopers at the scene, is conducting an investigation into the response by state police. State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, said McCraw, the state police chief, also deserves scrutiny.
“You fail at something so badly that people are getting hurt, then certainly we have to have some greater accountability,” he said.
School officials have said the Robb Elementary campus will no longer be used when students return Sept 6. Instead, campuses elsewhere in Uvalde will serve as temporary classrooms for elementary school students, not all of whom are willing to return to school in-person following the shooting.
School officials say a virtual academy will be offered for students. The district has not said how many students will attend virtually, but a new state law passed last year in Texas following the pandemic limits the number of eligible students receiving remote instruction to “10% of all enrolled students within a given school system.”
Schools can seek a waiver to exceed the limit but Uvalde has not done so, according to the Texas Education Agency.
New measures to improve school safety in Uvalde include “8-foot, non-scalable perimeter fencing” at elementary, middle and high school campuses, according to the school district. Officials say they have also installed additional security cameras, upgraded locks, enhanced training for district staff and improving communication.
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.