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School had a plan, armed officers, and practice. And still 10 people died

The Washington Post
May 21. 2018 9:37PM
A day after he fled Santa Fe High School, Rey Montemayor, 18, reflects on the attack that left 10 dead — and on the accused shooter. (JONATHAN NEWTON/WASHINGTON POST)



SANTA FE, Texas — They, like so many others, thought they had taken the steps to avoid this.

The school district had an active-shooter plan, and two armed police officers walked the halls of the high school. School district leaders had even agreed last fall to eventually arm teachers and staff under the state’s school marshal program, one of the country’s most aggressive and controversial policies intended to get more guns into classrooms.

They thought they were a hardened target, part of what’s expected today of the American public high school in an age when school shootings occur with alarming frequency. And so a death toll of 10 was a tragic sign of failure and needing to do more, but also a sign, to some, that it could have been much worse.

“My first indication is that our policies and procedures worked,” J.R. “Rusty” Norman, president of the school district’s board of trustees, said Saturday. “Having said that, the way things are, if someone wants to get into a school to create havoc, they can do it.”

The mass shooting — which killed 10 people and wounded 10 others in this rural community— again highlighted the despairing challenge at the center of the ongoing debate over how to make the nation’s schools safer. It also hints at a growing feeling of inevitability, a normalization of what should be impossible tragedies.

The gunman in Santa Fe used a pistol and a shotgun, firearms common to many South Texas homes, firearms he took from this father, police said. So there were no echoes of the calls to ban assault rifles or raise the minimum age for gun purchases that came after the shooting three months ago in Parkland, Fla.

Most residents here didn’t blame any gun for the tragedy down the street. Many of them pointed to a lack of religion in schools.

“It’s not the guns. It’s the people. It’s a heart problem,” said Sarah Tassin, 61. “We need to bring God back into the schools.”

Texas politicians are pushing to focus on school security — the hardening of targets.

Gov. Greg Abbott, R, said he planned to hold roundtable discussions starting Tuesday on how to make schools even more secure. One idea he and other state officials mentioned was limiting the number of entrances to the facilities. Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, said Congress eventually would consider legislation focused on “hardening targets and adding more school metal detectors and school police officers.”

But the horror in Santa Fe shows that there are limits there, too.

Wendy Long cries as she waits for her daughter’s friend to retrieve personal belongings from Santa Fe High School in Texas. (JONATHAN NEWTON/WASHINGTON POST)

Norman said he saw school security as a way to control, not prevent, school violence. And the school district had some practice. In February, two weeks after the Parkland shooting, Santa Fe High went into lockdown after a false alarm of an active-shooter situation, resulting in a huge emergency response. The school won a statewide award for its safety program.

“We can never be over-prepared,” Norman said. “But we were prepared.”

His school board approved a plan in November to allow some school staff members to carry guns, joining more than 170 school districts in Texas that have made similar plans. But Santa Fe was still working on it, Norman said. 

The search for red flags about the alleged gunman’s intentions continued Saturday — another familiar hallmark of school shootings.

Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the 17-year-old student who police said confessed to the shooting, was being held without bond at a jail in Galveston. Wearing a trench coat, he allegedly opened fire in an art class, moving through the room shooting at teachers and students, and talking to himself. He approached a supply closet where students were barricaded inside, and he shot through the windows saying “surprise,” said Isabelle Laymance, 15.

The gunman shot a school police officer who approached him, then talked with other officers, offering to surrender. The entire episode lasted a terrifying 30 minutes, according to witnesses and court records.

The Pagourtzis family released a statement Saturday saying they are “shocked and confused” by what happened and that the incident “seems incompatible with the boy we love.”

Nicholas Poehl, the Galveston attorney for Pagourtzis, said his client appeared “pretty dazed” when he met with him Saturday. The alleged gunman’s classmates and parents said they saw no signs of trouble before the shooting, though some said he had seemed somewhat depressed in recent months.


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