“‘Help! Help! Help!”
“I don’t want to die. My teacher is dead.”
“One of my teachers is still alive but shot.”
“There is a lot of dead bodies.”
A scathing US Justice Department review of one of America’s deadliest and most scrutinized school shootings highlights these pleas from terrified 9- and 10-year-old children trapped with a gunman at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022. The cries for help over a 911 call came during the first 37 minutes of the deadly siege. Another 40 minutes would pass before the 18-year-old shooter was killed.
The 575-page report on the botched law enforcement response said the victims “experienced unimaginable horror” and “witnessed unspeakable violence” as a result of the lack of courage and “cascading failures of leadership, decision-making, tactics, policy, and training.”
The Critical Incident Review is based on analysis of more than 14,100 documents and more than 260 interviews, it said.
Here are key takeaways from the damning review:
Failure to recognize active shooter situation
The Justice Department report acknowledges the quick arrival of law enforcement officers. They ran toward the sound of gunfire but then froze once they got near the classrooms.
“Officers on scene should have recognized the incident as an active shooter scenario and moved and pushed forward immediately and continuously toward the threat until the room was entered, and the threat was eliminated. That did not occur,” the report said.
Not immediately recognizing an active shooter situation was the “most significant failure” of the responding officers. They did not use “the resources and equipment that were sufficient to push forward immediately and continuously toward the threat until entry was made into classrooms,” according to the report.
Instead, the report said, the first officers at the school retreated from the gunfire and decided to wait for reinforcements, treating a gunman in a room full of children as a barricaded suspect.
Officers spent some 40 minutes searching for a key to an adjacent classroom that was probably unlocked. This search, according to the report, “was partly the cause of the significant delay in entering to eliminate the threat and stop the killing and dying.”
Failure to take ‘courageous action’
“Leadership in law enforcement is absolutely critical, especially in moments of dire challenge. It requires courageous action and steadiness in a chaotic environment,” the report said. “This leadership was absent for too long in the Robb Elementary School law enforcement response.”
Among those failing to lead that day were then-school Police Chief Pete Arredondo, then-acting Uvalde Police Chief Mariano Pargas and Uvalde County Sheriff Ruben Nolasco.
Arredondo was described by the Justice Department as the de facto on-scene commander. He delayed help getting to the children and their teachers in classrooms 111 and 112 because he believed they were already dead, said the report, in a finding CNN previously reported.
“He acknowledged the likelihood that there were victims and deceased in the room with the shooter and intentionally prioritized the evacuations over immediate breach and entry into the room,” the report said.
“This is counter to active shooter response principles, which state the priority is to address and eliminate the threat.”
Arredondo, who was fired, has said he did not see himself as the incident commander and instead was “responding as a police officer.”
The report blamed the sheriff for not sharing vital information he had about the gunman, as CNN first reported.
“Sheriff Nolasco did not seek out or establish a command post, establish unified command, share the intelligence he learned from (the shooter’s) relatives, nor did he assign an intelligence officer to gather intelligence on the subject,” the report said.
“At one point, Sheriff Nolasco and UPD Acting Chief Pargas were within 10-15 feet of each other outside the exterior door of the northwest hallway; however, they were not coordinating with one another and continued to act independently.”
As a result, the report said, a game warden and constable assumed roles traditionally performed by an incident commander.
And other responding officers also failed to assume leadership roles – including two constables and the US Border Patrol tactical team commander who led the deadly assault on the gunman.
“Although these individuals at times attempted to direct or coordinate with other law enforcement resources around them, none coordinated to develop a plan to enter classrooms 111 and 112 or establish an incident command structure,” the report said.
Failure to secure the crime scene
The initial crime scene investigation, which was the responsibility of the Texas Department of Public Safety, was hampered by too many people walking into the two classrooms.
“While triaging, officers moved deceased victims within the classrooms, into the hallway, into classrooms 131 and 132, and outside,” the report said. “Other items inside the room may have also been inadvertently moved during the chaotic scene.”
In addition, the gunman’s hellfire trigger system was not initially catalogued as evidence because the investigative team didn’t know what it was or its possible relevance, the report said. The device was later recovered from a trash can.
“Notably,” the report said, “the device was incidentally photographed on the floor in crime scene photos from days prior.”
And an FBI offer to process the shooter’s truck before a storm was not accepted, according to the report. Heavy rain eventually compromised any evidence in the truck.
Failure to establish standard operating procedures
At the time, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department was functioning without any standard operating procedures, the report said.
District employees, including administrators, faculty, support staff and police officers told the DOJ “they had no knowledge of, nor had they been informed about, their school police department’s policies and procedures.”
District campus safety teams met infrequently, the DOJ said. Annual safety plans were “based largely on templated information that was, at times, inaccurate.”
In addition, the DOJ team cited what it called the school district’s “culture of complacency regarding locked-door policies.”
“Both exterior and interior doors were routinely left unlocked, and there was no enforced system of accountability for these policies,” the report said. “Door audits were conducted, but not done systematically, nor were they documented.”
On the day of the mass shooting, all the exterior doors and at least eight interior doors of the building where the attack took place were unlocked, the report said.
Failure to communicate with families
The Justice Department report dismissed the early official narrative of brave first responders saving lives that day and said “many victims shared that it added to their pain during a challenging time.”
The actions of first responders – along with the “‘heroic’ storyline” initially pushed by officials about the handling of the incident -– “dealt a serious blow to public confidence in local and state law enforcement,” according to the report.
The report said parents whose children were dead were misled at the civic center used as a reunification site and at hospitals. It cited the case of one family member who said they’d been told their child was at a hospital. After describing their child to staff members the parent was told the child was not there. Later, the report said, the parent learned the child was dead and had been at the hospital for hours.
Some families were provided incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information, the report said.
The report described a disorganized and chaotic death notification process. It said families “encountered many obstacles to locating their loved ones, getting access to the hospital, and getting information from leadership, law enforcement, and hospital staff in a timely matter.”
A county district attorney at one point told family members they needed to wait for autopsy results before death notifications. Some family members yelled out: “What, our kids are dead? No, no!”
Some families were told their loved ones had survived when they had not, according to the report. “Others were notified of the deaths of their family members by personnel untrained in delivering such painful news.”
“The victims and survivors of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School deserved better,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement Thursday. “The law enforcement response at Robb Elementary on May 24th, 2022 — and the response by officials in the hours and days after — was a failure.”
CNN’s Rachel Clarke, Shimon Prokupecz, Hannah Rabinowitz, Aaron Cooper and Dakin Andone contributed to this report.
This story has been updated with new information.
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