Automatic locking doors and law enforcement radios — things that were supposed to protect children from mass shootings — failed in the Uvalde school massacre, a top Texas official testified Tuesday.
In testimony before the state legislature, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw outlined several school security failures that may have contributed to the tragic outcome at Robb Elementary last month, when a gunman opened fire and killed two teachers and 19 students.
While he described the police response to the shooting as an “abject failure,” McCraw said there also were several basic safety failures within the school building that should have been addressed long before the May 24 attack.
For instance, McCraw said, neither the exterior door nor the classroom doors could be locked from the inside that day, giving the gunman an easy pathway.
Failure One: Exterior door didn’t lock
Shooter Salvador Rodrigo Ramos essentially “walked straight through” the school’s west entrance because an exterior door could be locked only from the outside, McCraw said during his testimony. While law enforcement initially blamed a teacher for leaving the door open, McCraw said the teacher actually shut the door not knowing that it had not locked.
In order to secure the door, someone would have had to lock it from the outside leaving others inside, McCraw explained.
The door has a hex key, also known as an Allen key or Allen wrench, that disables its automatic lock mechanism, and in the case of Robb Elementary, “someone consciously had made a decision that it was OK to have that as a nonlocking door that day,” said state Sen. Charles Perry, who added that that style of door is used in a majority of schools across the state.
When asked what could possibly be the reason to have doors like that, McCraw seemed befuddled.
“I can’t explain it. It makes no sense at all,” McCraw said, adding that there are much better locking systems that could have been used at the school. “I can’t imagine that this is safe.”
The failure of the exterior door as a first line of defense reignited calls from Texas leaders to “harden” schools to prevent shootings.
“After Santa Fe in 2018, and I was there on that scene pretty early, and said that day that we need to reduce entrances and have locked doors and I was actually ridiculed at that time,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said after the Senate hearing. “Had there been one single entrance possibly for every student, maybe he would have been stopped. You can do everything in the world, you can train all the officers, you can have everyone aware, but if doors are unlocked and don’t function, that is a major breakdown.”
Patrick did not immediately return a request for comment by NBC News. He has previously advocated for fewer doors in schools, saying in 2018 that buildings contained too many entrances and exits.
Failure Two: “Dysfunctional” classroom door
As Ramos made his way down the halls of the school, eventually choosing to enter classrooms 111 and 112, the classroom doors did not lock from the inside, McCraw said.
The doors were “dysfunctional” and “not secure” in that the locking mechanism did not work properly. It is unclear if that was by design or if it was a malfunction.
“When the school went into lockdown and the training that occurred in reality, it’s a myth,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt said. “There is no school lockdown at Robb elementary because the doors can’t be locked from the inside … there is no barrier to the shooter walking into a classroom in this particular case because of the strike plate being broken and so we’re training people in a situation where they simply don’t have the equipment to protect themselves.”
“We set up a condition to failure in an active shooter environment,” Bettencourt said.
The issue of the faulty doors had been reported by at least one teacher before the shooting, McCraw testified, meaning that either administrators or building maintenance staff were aware of the issue.
“This is ridiculous and it’s inexcusable if you’re looking at it from a security standpoint,” he said.
Although the door was unlocked, McGraw said officers stood outside the classroom while waiting for a key to open it. An investigation into the shooting showed that no one on the scene tried to open the door, he said.
McCraw added that a door separating the two classrooms the shooter entered also did not have a locking mechanism, giving the gunman clear entry into a second classroom.
Failure Three: A series of shortcomings
After hearing gunshots outside, a Robb Elementary School teacher triggered an internal silent Raptor Alert system within one minute of the shooter entering the school. However, there was no “panic button” in classrooms that alerted the entire campus at the same time, McCraw said.
The Raptor Alert is a “silent panic alert system that works on the devices your schools use every day,” according to its manufacturer’s website.
While the system did do its job to the extent that it alerted teachers immediately, McCraw said, a more centralized alert system that notified everyone at the same time would have been better.
“I think there was protocol and we saw it in this Raptor system that went out and the fact that the teachers got the word and were protecting their children, their classrooms and doing what they were supposed to do,’’ he said. “We did recommend some efficiencies that can be changed in terms of mass alert system and there’s things to improve.”
In the minutes and eventual hour that followed the gunman’s entry into the school, radios used by officers on the scene were inoperable, rendering communication with law enforcement difficult, McCraw testified.
The portable radios used by Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police chief Pete Arredondo — who initially didn’t even have his radio — other officers and Department of Public Safety personnel did not work inside the school building, and officers had to step 10 feet away from the school to receive signals, McCraw said, citing an investigation. Radios used by Border Patrol agents did work but poorly, he said.
McCraw said the radio system in rural Texas needs to be replaced.
What’s more, in trying to disperse officers who had been waiting for orders for over an hour, a school map or diagram that had been used to explain the layout of the campus was also inaccurate, McCraw testified, making a response even more difficult to coordinate.
That’s one of the reasons why state and federal officers relied on Arredondo for guidance, initially, as he was seen as someone who was more familiar with the layout of the school.