Students return to school in Uvalde for first time since mass shooting that killed 21

Students and teachers returned to school in Uvalde for the first time since the massacre at Robb Elementary that left 21 dead. The new year comes with new concerns as parents, teachers and students worry if their schools are safe. Tony Plohetski of the Austin American-Statesman joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Students and teachers returned to school in Uvalde, Texas, today for the first time since the massacre in May that left 21 dead, most of them children.

    Amna Nawaz has our update.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The first day of school in Uvalde, Texas, bus rides, backpacks, and kids back in the classroom. But the new school year here comes with new concerns. It was just over three months ago that 19 children and two teachers were killed by an 18-year-old gunman at Robb Elementary.

    Today, parents, teachers, and students worry, are their schools safe?

    For Veronica Mata, whose 10-year old daughter, Tess, was killed that day, it was never a question of if she would return to teaching, but when.

    Veronica Mata, Mother of Uvalde Shooting Victim: There was a question of whether I was mentally ready, but not to go back. Teaching was always something that I wanted to do. And I know that Tess would have wanted me to go back.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But not everyone carries that confidence about returning to class. A number of students have opted into homeschooling or virtual learning. And since Robb Elementary will not reopen its doors, many students are attending new and different schools in the area.

    One of those, Uvalde Elementary, where Veronica Mata teaches, unveiled new security measures like high fencing, security cameras, and more secure doors.

  • Christy Perez, Principal, Uvalde Elementary:

    So, you will walk this way. We have our buzz system right here. Just press it there, hold it, and then I can hear it ringing. And there we go.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And the Texas Department of Public Safety has committed dozens of officers to patrol Uvalde school campuses.

    But many here are still angry over the botched police response to the mass shooting in may.

    Brett Cross, Uncle and Guardian of Shooting Victim: I don't think that they have handled it at all. I think they just keep trying to put Band-Aids on a gunshot wound.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Reminders of that day and the trauma left in its wake are everywhere. But, today, the children of Uvalde returned to class and their new sense of normal.

    Joining me now is Tony Plohetski, investigative reporter for The Austin-American Statesman who has covered the massacre and its fallout since that tragic day.

    Tony, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks for always joining us.

    It's the first day back in school for these kids who survived the unimaginable three months ago. Safety has to be top of mind. So what do we know about what the school district has done and has not yet done to make sure kids and parents feel safe back in those schools?

  • Tony Plohetski, The Austin-American Statesman:

    Well, Amna, keep in mind that, for most Texas schools, it actually started several weeks ago in mid-August.

    Uvalde officials intentionally delayed school in that community to give them a chance to install some of the safety measures that they have been talking about after this happened, including cameras, new fencing around schools as well as lock on doors.

    And we have seen officials in social media videos sort of give us a demonstration. But, unfortunately, many of the measures that they were putting in place were not in place when school started today for a variety of reasons.

    And so that only intensified among parents this uneasy, this sense of unease and anxiety as they sent their kids back to school today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, Tony, do we know why some of those measures weren't in place?

    I mean, as we mentioned, our colleague here, producer Courtney Norris, was in touch with one of the parents there, a woman named Kelsey Peridot (ph), who has a third grader at Uvalde Elementary. And she said she was just baffled, that she said: They have had all this time to put these things into place. I don't know why they haven't done them yet.

    Do we know why?

  • Tony Plohetski:

    It is quite disappointing.

    We are still investigating some of the reasons that some of the promises about security have not been fulfilled. At this point, what the superintendent's office and what the school district has said is that they were hampered by supply chain issues and that they weren't able to get some of the goods and materials that they needed to shore up some of these campuses.

    We also know — and this is an important note as well — that more than three dozen Texas Department of Public Safety troopers have been on the ground in Uvalde today helping patrol some of those campuses as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tony, we know the school district is also making available a virtual learning option for students who do not feel safe going back into the classrooms.

    Have you spoken to any families who are taking advantage of that?

  • Tony Plohetski:

    What some families tell us is that this was an option that they did, in fact, choose to pursue.

    The district confirmed that about 150 students have enrolled virtually. But, Amna, it's also important to note that this is a community of largely working-class families. And so what many parents have said is that they simply did not have the option of enrolling their children in virtual learning. And so they had to really face this dilemma of sending their children back to school.

    We also know that some families, as a matter of fact, also have enrolled their kids and other schools and other districts, as well as private schools in the area as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We just saw how much anger and frustration there still is on the ground. You recall that town hall meeting in which a lot of it did boil over.

    The question, I think, remains, has all of that frustration, all of that anger, has that led to accountability on the ground?

  • Tony Plohetski:

    There are indications that it is leading to accountability on the ground.

    Keep in mind that last month, the school district, after three months, fired the school district police chief, who was said to be the incident commander that day.

    And, Amna, just this evening, we are able to report that the Texas Department of Public Safety has confirmed that five of its employees who were on the ground that day have now been referred to the state's Inspector General's Office for possible disciplinary action and possible termination against them.

    We're still learning what possible policy violations they may have broken that day. But there is some movement toward accountability. And that is something that many people in that community have been demanding for some time now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tony, finally, we know you and your colleagues at The Austin-American Statesman have joined with other Texas newsrooms suing Uvalde officials for refusing to give you access to a number of records.

    What are you seeking? What questions do you hope those documents could answer?

  • Tony Plohetski:

    This is a broad coalition of media outlets here in Texas and beyond, as a matter of fact.

    And given the amount of discrepancies from what authorities said in those first weeks after the shooting, based on what we know now, we believe that the only way for the public to have a true and accurate picture of what happened that horrible day is for all of the information to be made public.

    There has been something of an erratic release of information, including some body camera video, of course, the hallway footage from that day. But, again, we are appealing to state officials to release the entire body of information, so that everyone, not only here in Texas, but across the nation, can have a full and broad understanding of the law enforcement response that day.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, of course, no one deserves those answers more than the families there on the ground.

    Tony Plohetski of The Austin-American Statesman joining us today as kids in Uvalde, Texas, go back to school.

    Tony, thank you. Always good to see you.

  • Tony Plohetski:

    Thank you. You too.

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