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News brief: Texas school shooting, vigil for victims, preventing the next shooting

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Have you seen the photos of children, elementary school kids, who went to school Tuesday morning in Uvalde, Texas?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

They were writing the first chapter of their lives. Two teachers were also killed. In a moment, we'll hear how the community is grieving. We also ask how to protect other schools. But we begin with bare facts of this investigation.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ashley Lopez is on the line. Ashley, good morning.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, let's begin with the gunman. To the extent that you know, what is his story?

LOPEZ: So what we know now is that the shooter dropped out of high school and had recently moved in with his grandmother in Uvalde at the time of the shooting. Authorities report they haven't been able to find a criminal record, though. There's also no known mental health record, even though state officials during a press conference yesterday blamed the bulk of what happened on a mental health crisis in that part of the state. We also know that the gunman purchased a semi-automatic rifle, an AR-15, at a local sporting goods store on May 17, just days before the shooting. On May 18, he bought 375 rounds of ammunition for that rifle. And then on May 20, he purchased another semi-automatic rifle.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should note these were all, so far as we know, legal purchases by an 18-year-old. Did he give any signal that he was about to act as he then did?

LOPEZ: The only information that was known ahead of the shooting was actually posted by the gunman through private messages on Facebook about 30 minutes before he got to the school. According to the FBI, he first sent the messages on the site around 11 a.m., saying he was going to shoot his grandmother. In the second message, he announced that he had shot her. And in the third, he announced he was going to shoot up an elementary school. He wrote that message about 15 minutes before he got to the school. But law enforcement officers say that, in general, they have not found any information on social media or other sources that would have alerted them in time that this crime was going to happen.

INSKEEP: So we have a young man. He armed himself. He sent these warnings. He then began to act. And then what happened as he approached the school?

LOPEZ: So this is still preliminary information. What we know now is that earlier in that day, the gunman, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, shot his 66-year-old grandmother in the face and then used her car to flee to Robb Elementary, where he apparently crashed the truck he was driving right outside the school. Governor Greg Abbott says the grandmother, after being shot, called law enforcement. The gunman eventually ran into the school, and officers on campus approached him. He was able to get away and enter a classroom that was connected to another classroom. That is where law enforcement said almost all of the killings happened. Eventually, Border Patrol made it onto the scene and shot and killed the gunman.

INSKEEP: I can almost imagine that - the two connected classrooms. I've seen that in schools. So almost all the victims in those two connected rooms.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

INSKEEP: What more is known about the victims?

LOPEZ: So authorities have now identified every victim of the shooting and have notified families. And as we've known, 21 people were killed. Nineteen of those victims were schoolchildren. All of them were in the same fourth-grade classroom. We've also learned that another 17 people were wounded, though none critically. During a press conference yesterday, Governor Greg Abbott talked about some of the people who were hurt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: In addition to the students and the faculty, there were three officers who were injured who all remain in good condition. One deputy sheriff lost a daughter in that school.

INSKEEP: What's still unknown, Ashley?

LOPEZ: So far, state official Steve McCraw - he's the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety - says the big question is motive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE MCCRAW: No, there's limited information. We don't see a motive or catalyst right now. We're looking for it, scouring. We'll continue to do so.

LOPEZ: Like most of these kinds of tragedies, officials are trying to make sense of what is, ultimately, a senseless crime.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ashley Lopez. Thanks.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Now, the scene of the shooting was a small Texas town.

FADEL: And in that town, some 2,000 mourners gathered last night.

BEN JACKLIN: I just wanted to be with these people. I can't really explain it.

INSKEEP: Ben Jacklin (ph) was one of about 2,000 people who attended the vigil in Uvalde last night. Our co-host A Martinez was there. Hey there, A.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was the experience like?

MARTINEZ: Yeah, for about an hour and a half, people were packed into an arena that's usually used for fun events, joyous events, like bull-riding, quinceaneras and weddings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: Last night, though, it became a sanctuary for the pain and the grief that this small, close-knit town is enduring and also for those who tried to bring some comfort to their neighbors who've been suffering.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED MINISTER #1: We want to express our most sincere condolences to those who have lost loved ones. And we want you to know that we remember you each and every day. (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MINISTER #2: For those who've lost little children, pray for them. Pray for the little children that saw what happened to their friends (crying).

UNIDENTIFIED MINISTER #3: Father, we pray for the city, for all our children who've been impacted. We pray for them in Jesus' mighty name.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTINEZ: Now, you hear there ministers from three local churches speaking to the overflow crowd that included local community leaders, along with Texas Governor Greg Abbott and also U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.

INSKEEP: Who were some of the people you met there?

MARTINEZ: One of them was Lea Rentch (ph). I met her near the exits after the service ended. A teenage girl was walking out crying, and I watched this happen in front of me. Lea made a beeline to her, held her head in her hands and then hugged her for well over a minute without saying a word. And it didn't look like they even knew each other, but at that moment, that didn't even matter.

LEA RENTCH: That's what we do here in Uvalde - we hug, and we love.

MARTINEZ: Why did you come tonight?

RENTCH: It's a tight-knit community. We're small. And I have a grandson that goes to school in Uvalde. He was not at that campus. So just need to be here.

MARTINEZ: When you found out what happened that day, I mean, what was the first thing that ran through your head and heart?

RENTCH: You just pray, just pray.

MARTINEZ: There's all kinds of debate about what this day - what that day means with gun laws and politics. What do you want to hear from our leaders on something like that in relation to this and what happened here?

RENTCH: I don't want to hear anything about that. It's not about that. It's about these babies.

MARTINEZ: And, Steve, it was really unlike anything I had ever experienced. I've never covered anything like this. The grief of the residents of Uvalde was jarring. It was overwhelming. And it was impossible not to feel how vulnerable and violated this community is right now. I was really shaken.

INSKEEP: What was it like just walking around town?

MARTINEZ: Well, Uvalde's like any other small town. You know, if you pause, you know, while driving through, you'll see a grassy town square surrounded by historic houses. Right now, though, that town is overrun by media. Right around Robb Elementary School, there are so many TV trucks and satellite dishes, it felt like we were traipsing through a densely packed jungle of tents, of cameras and makeshift workstations. You couldn't even see the school until we were right on top of it. And now for the people who live there, they've really temporarily lost their own neighborhood.

INSKEEP: Our colleague A Martinez is in Texas. A, thanks so much.

MARTINEZ: Sure, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, here's another question - how can we prevent the next tragedy?

FADEL: And it's a repeated question after every school shooting. Researchers, safety experts and even the U.S. Secret Service have rallied around some very clear answers.

INSKEEP: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner is here. Cory, good morning.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's start with gun policy. What do the experts say?

TURNER: First, there is broad consensus that arming teachers, which we've heard some about lately, is not good policy. I spoke with Matthew Mayer at Rutgers, who's been part of a big interdisciplinary group studying school shootings.

MATTHEW MAYER: Arming teachers is an all-around bad idea because it invites numerous disasters and problems, and the chances of it actually helping are so minuscule.

TURNER: School safety researchers also support tightening age limits for gun ownership from 18 to 21. The teenage brain, Steve, is just too impulsive and irrational. And it's worth remembering, the gunman in Uvalde, Parkland, Santa Fe, Newtown, Columbine, were all under 21. In a 2018 call to action, dozens of advocacy groups and school safety experts, including Professor Mayer, also recommended universal background checks and banning assault-style weapons. And I want to add one more thing here from a report by the Secret Service - improved gun storage at home. In half the school shootings they studied, the gun used was either readily accessible or not really secured.

INSKEEP: I'm interested in hearing you say all these things, Cory, because they are not things that are specific to schools. We're talking about the availability of guns in society and the ease of obtaining weapons in society and raising the question - or experts are, anyway - of whether people can work around the edges of that a little bit and restrict it just a little bit. So that's gun safety. Now, what specifically can schools do?

TURNER: Yeah. They can do a few things. There has been a lot of movement in recent years toward hardening schools - so adding police officers and metal detectors. But honestly, the experts I spoke with say schools should focus on softening to support the social and emotional needs of students. In that 2018 call to action I mentioned, experts recommended a national requirement that schools, quote, "maintain physically and emotionally safe conditions and positive school environments that protect all students and adults from bullying, discrimination, harassment and assault." The Secret Service found among the school gunmen they studied, 80% had been bullied, and three-quarters had some kind of disciplinary history at school, which is why the Secret Service also recommends schools implement what they call a threat assessment model, where trained staff, including an administrator, a school counselor or psychologist and some kind of law enforcement representative all team up to help identify students who exhibit red-flag behaviors and get them help before there's a crisis.

INSKEEP: This is all really interesting. It's not that you were bullied and so you go do a school shooting.

TURNER: No.

INSKEEP: There's somebody listening now who was bullied in school who figured out the way to recover. But the point is, these are warning signs that can lead to worse things. That's very interesting. But do schools have the resources to follow up on that information in front of them?

TURNER: You know, in recent years, schools have absolutely embraced the importance of fostering a positive school climate, accepting that kids can't learn if they don't also feel safe. It is worth noting, because of pandemic stress on children and a flood of federal relief dollars, schools are getting more help with this. They are in the middle of a hiring boom for counselors, social workers and school psychologists. In fact, President Biden himself, Steve, has said he wants to double the number of mental health professionals based in schools.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cory Turner. Thanks so much.

TURNER: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.