Locals mourn Uvalde and call for change, schools talk safety and university launches community response

A small crowd gathered last week on the Presidio County Courthouse lawn to honor those who lost their lives in the recent mass school shooting in Uvalde. Attendees paused for moments of silence at an altar with candles and other various offerings set up for the victims. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

TRI-COUNTY AREA — A small group of citizens gathered last Wednesday on the Presidio County Courthouse lawn for a candlelight vigil to honor those who lost their lives in a mass school shooting which took place in Uvalde, Texas, the day prior. Days later, in Alpine, a group of around 30 congregated in a public park to mourn and to call for stricter gun laws. 

In the small, neighboring towns, the ripple effects of the national tragedy — which took place over four hours eastward — were being felt and acted upon. 

The shooting, in which an armed 18-year-old took the lives of 19 fourth graders and two educators, occurred at Robb Elementary. Investigators with the Texas Department of Public Safety are conducting a probe of the local police response, in which the police chief ordered officers to wait for backup instead of confronting the gunman, even though children inside the building were calling 911. 

In the aftermath of the national tragedy — which reawakened long-held debates over the state’s lax gun laws — communities across Texas gathered to commemorate the grief-stricken Uvalde community and rallied to organize aid.

In Marfa, candles — one with the handwritten sentiment “Marfa hearts Uvalde” in Sharpie — flickered in the wind on a makeshift altar as pianist Jason Ballmann played melancholy tunes on a portable electric keyboard to a group of around 20 attendees. Flags flanking the courthouse entrance were drawn at half mast.

Organizers of the vigil, Marfa residents Jake Davis and Becca Bright, wanted to give locals a place to come together and show support for Uvalde, they said. 

“It’s small, but it feels like a natural gesture towards another small Texas community,” said Bright. “Just to offer a safe space to process or have conversations, grieve.” 

“We can start activism tomorrow, contacting senators and elected officials for much needed gun reform laws to address the crisis happening in this country,” added Davis. “Tonight, I think our shared goal, spoken or unspoken, was just to create a space where people can come and take what they need and leave what they don’t.” 

Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez was present at the vigil along with other local officers. He said the impacts of the Uvalde shooting would be felt over an extended period and the fact that it happened at an elementary school in another small border town was sobering.

“This is going to be on our minds for a long, long time,” said Marquez. “It happened in Uvalde, but it’s got a ripple effect, it affects everybody.” 

The Marfa Police Department held a multi-agency active shooter training this spring, funded by a grant from the ALERRT (Advanced Law Enforcement Emergency Rapid Response Training) Center of Texas State University in San Marcos, and intends to host more in the future, said Marquez. He said collaboration with other area first responders, like the EMS and volunteer fire departments, would also continue. 

“We’re going to go into summer right now, but [Uvalde] is going to stay on everybody’s mind over the next three months, preparing for next year,” said Marquez. 

Marquez said he was in ongoing conversations with Marfa Independent School District Superintendent Oscar Aguero regarding strategies for emergency response training as well as how to keep lines of communication open between students, teachers and parents. 

Marquez, a father of five, was also grappling with the events in Uvalde on a personal level, he said. 

“Speaking as a parent, you send your kids to school, you want to see them come home. This stuff shouldn’t happen,” said Marquez. “Your kids shouldn’t be afraid to go to school.”

School security has been a frequent subject of discussion at many school board meetings over the past year. With the possibility of a bond for campus infrastructure upgrades on the horizon, Aguero told The Big Bend Sentinel on Tuesday that the issue of school safety would likely play a large role in the reimagining of MISD’s facilities.

Aguero said the district is working on installing new security cameras for all of the buildings on campus and he and Chief Marquez were set to meet soon regarding possible additional security measures the schools could implement next year. Marfa police officers are typically present during school days in the mornings and afternoons to assist with the flow of traffic, but serve no other significant role in monitoring school safety on a daily basis.

Another possible measure the school district is looking into is the installation of keyless, smart locks for building doors. But because that option requires each door to be hooked up to electricity, the decision on styles of door locks will likely be delayed in favor of making a decision in conjunction with any safety solutions that come out of bond discussions, said Aguero. There are a few doors Aguero said he would like to prioritize getting keyless locks for. 

The district will work through the summer on safety messaging and plans to send out information to students and parents at the beginning of the school year this coming August, said Aguero. Possible safety-enhanced solutions might include directing student traffic to certain areas when classes occur at the district’s campus-adjacent facilities, like welding courses which take place across the street. But the campus’s sheer number of buildings, ingresses and egresses presents a number of security challenges, said Aguero. 

The district is also looking to streamline and better understand their emergency notification systems and will continue to hold shelter in place, fire and reunification drills as required by law, said Aguero.

Over in Alpine, resident Helen Snook felt compelled to do something — she started by sending an email to a few friends, asking about organizing a rally. Upon doing a little research, she discovered that she wouldn’t need a permit if the event took place on park land. She organized a gathering to take place Saturday morning at the Railroad Park. A table with candles and flowers was set up to honor the lives lost. Locals turned up with signs expressing their grief and anger over repeated mass shootings. 

“It was just good to do something and be out there and let people know that, you know, things like that happen, but we’re not going to just say, ‘Oh, well’ — we’re going to express our sadness and frustration that this stuff continues,” said Snook.

Part of the purpose of the event was advocating for increased gun safety measures, said Snook. “One of the things we need to do is regulate gun ownership, so we don’t have guns in everybody’s hands that shouldn’t have guns,” she said. 

Many passers-by honked and waved, signaling their approval, said Snook; a smaller number of people directed “negative gestures” towards the small gathering. 

The tragedy struck particularly close to home for nearby Sul Ross State University — the sprawling West Texas institution is based in Alpine, but also has a campus in Uvalde. Both teachers who were killed in the shooting, Irma Linda Garcia and Eva Mireles, were Sul Ross alumni. In the days following the shooting, the university posted a tribute to the departed. A dedicated page full of resources for those grappling with the tragedy, or those looking to offer aid, appeared on the university’s website.

“It’s been, for all of us, pretty traumatic, because we have employees there, we have students there,” said outgoing SRSU President Pete Gallego in an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel. “None of our campus employees lost anyone directly in their families, but it’s such a small town. It’s not that different from an Alpine, where everybody’s affected because everybody knows somebody was impacted.”

The dispersed campus is a united one, noted Gallego — because many classes are online, it’s not uncommon for students living elsewhere to take a class from a professor in Uvalde. “We’re all very bound together,” he said.

The school has already established a scholarship in the names of the two departed alumni, said Gallego, and is looking towards establishing opportunities for children impacted by the shooting and their siblings to attend the university on scholarship. Sul Ross has also been asked to provide counseling services via the local Federally Qualified Health Clinic, and the Uvalde campus has closed in recent days to provide “a focal point where law enforcement can gather.”

“We have folks both in Alpine and on the ground there in Uvalde working on short-term, middle-term and long-term methods of helping the community, because truthfully, when the national media and others leave, Sul Ross will still be there as a member of that community,” said Gallego.

In terms of school security, Gallego said the university is looking at “upgrading” facilities –– that includes investing more in doors and in electronic security systems and upgrading on-campus technology like video cameras and alarms. The university president cited a recent event at the Alpine campus in which a two-hour shelter-in-place order was imposed due to reports of a suspicious person, possibly carrying a gun — that person turned out to be holding a BB gun, said Gallego, but it prompted internal discussions about tackling emergency responses. 

“We have that conversation fairly regularly, as this has become a phenomenon in American society,” said Gallego. 

At Alpine ISD — where, in 2016, a 14-year-old freshman shot and killed herself after shooting and wounding another student — security and safety have already already a priority, said interim Superintendent Dennis McEntire, who spoke to The Big Bend Sentinel with the caveat that he is vacating the temporary position in the coming days, and a permanent superintendent will be in place on Monday. The facilities are already equipped with locked, buzz-in doors and ID systems, Mcentire said. “We’re doing pretty much everything that can be done without turning our schools into prisons,” he said.

The school is also offering counseling services to students and parents — there is an imperative to pay attention to “people who are hurting in our communities,” said McEntire.

“That awareness is the best defense against this — awareness on everybody’s part and to always be aware of what’s around you,” he said. “And I think the other part of that is, when you hear cries for help, whether it’s from anguish or anger or how those cries come in, we have to pay attention to them.”