The vigils, memorial services and funerals are winding down in the southwest Texas Hill Country town of Uvalde, but the mourning is far from over.
It’s been one month since a gunman stormed into the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde and opened fire, killing 19 children and two teachers. More than a dozen others were wounded, as was the psyche of the quiet town that burst sadly into the national spotlight.
Services were scheduled Saturday in San Angelo for Uziyah Garcia, 10, the last victim to be buried. His grandfather, Manny Renfro, remembered “Uzi” as a fast runner who could catch a football – and as “the sweetest little boy that I’ve ever known.”
Funerals can provide a sense of closure, a “container” for grief and a ritual that helps communities process loss, said clinical psychologist Dr. David Read Johnson, co-director of the Post Traumatic Stress Center in New Haven, Connecticut.
The community will require strong social and emotional support, beginning with the families of the victims and then for the students in the schools, he said.
Trauma-informed strategies and “safe spaces” to share and process feelings will be vital to the community’s long-term healing, Johnson said.
“Moving beyond the immediate response, families will be faced with the long, difficult reality of life without their loved one,” Johnson told USA TODAY. “The community, no longer focused on a specific task at hand, will need to face the harder questions of what comes next for Robb Elementary School, for education and for school safety.”
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Uvalde is a grim symptom of a national illness. More people have died in mass killings in schools in the past five years than in the prior 12 years combined, according to a database of mass killings kept by USA TODAY, The Associated Press and Northeastern University.
Gunfire on school property is at an all-time high, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security. And firearms are now the leading cause of death among children and teens in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“One of the most traumatizing aspects of mass shootings in the U.S. is that our many circles of communities – family, local and national – do not have time to process the horror of our loss before we are battered by another ghastly shooting,” said Kari Winter, professor of American studies at University at Buffalo, SUNY.
“We are basically in a state of undeclared civil war.”
A community buries 19 young children
Uvalde and its 16,000 residents are a small town with a strong Latino culture and a big heart. Coming together to support friends and loved ones is a given. Two funeral homes in Uvalde said they would not charge families of victims for funeral services. And, aided by nationwide support, GoFundMe campaigns for the families of the victims raised more than $5 million within days of the carnage.
Also within days, 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza was one of the first to be laid to rest. Classmates say she was trying to call 911 on her new phone when she was shot.
Amerie Jo was a Girl Scout and proud of the badges she earned. The Girl Scouts were proud of her, too, posthumously awarding Amerie one of the highest honors in Girl Scouting: the Bronze Cross. It is awarded for saving or attempting to save life at the risk of the Girl Scout’s own life.
“On May 24, Amerie did all she could to save the lives of her classmates and teachers,” the organization said. “We will carry her story with us always and ensure her brave actions will endure for generations.”
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A few days later, Eliahna “Ellie” Garcia was buried. The day after she was supposed to turn 10. Her family had been planning a big party, and Ellie hoped to receive gifts related to the Disney movie “Encanto.”
Ellie loved making videos and had been practicing a dance with her older sister for her quinceañera party — the celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday — even though it was still years away.
The entire family faces a long road to recovery, said Ellie’s aunt, Siria Arizmendi: “It is just sad for all the children.”
Layla Salazar, 11, was one of the last children to be buried. Layla loved swimming and running, she was a fan of the Dallas Cowboys and loved dancing to TikTok videos, said her father, Vincent Salazar. She won six races at Robb Elementary’s field day. He had shared photos of her with her ribbons on social media.
“Grieving is a process,” said Ogbonnaya Omenka, an assistant professor and director of diversity at the Butler University College of Pharmacy and Health Science. “For public health, the more the support for the grieving, the shorter their recovery process and return to their roles in society.”
How does a community move on?
Controversy over police actions in the minutes after the shooting started have not made the healing process easier. There were enough officers on the scene to have stopped the gunman three minutes after he entered the building, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety testified this week.
Steve McCraw described the police response as an “abject failure” that ignored lessons from previous shootings and put the lives of officers ahead of the lives of children. McCraw blamed the incident commander, Pete Arredondo, the school district’s police chief, for stopping officers from quickly confronting the gunman.
Arredondo said he did all he could and points to the effort to evacuate hundreds of students from other classrooms during the tragedy. But many parents and other communities want him out.
“In any public health intervention, controversy, unfortunately, can become a weakening distraction against the solutions, immediate and long-term,” Omenka said, referencing an African proverb: “When elephants fight, the grasses suffer.”
Nancy Sutton, a professional school portrait photographer, has taken pictures of virtually every student at Uvalde schools for the past 20 years. That includes victims of the carnage at Robb Elementary.
Sutton said the community is taking great care of the families. Recovery has been made more difficult by “bad press” over how the shooting was handled, she said, adding that most residents are upset with the police and city officials and want action.
“We are all still grieving and it will take a while,” she said. “The families are holding strong but of course want answers. I don’t blame them. It’s so heartbreaking to see what it’s done to our community and our school district.”
Part of a population’s recovery from a public health tragedy is understanding the contributing factors to the problem and figuring out ways to prevent it from recurring, or how to “deal with it” if it returns, Omenka said.
“This might result in controversy and exacerbation of the emotional suffering brought about by the problem, if, for instance, there is evidence or the public believe that more actions could have been taken to prevent or solve the problem,” he said.
Community grieving may transform in a number of ways, said Johnson, the clinical psychologist. The event can be avoided and its memory suppressed, leading to unaddressed trauma that will fester for years.
Or, as in Parkland, Florida – where a teen opened fire on students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing 17 people – it can build into sustained activism and community conversation, Johnson said.
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“Only by accepting the reality of what has happened, can a community find creative new ways to support each other and heal together over time,” he said. “The trauma and loss of May 24, 2022, will never leave the community of Uvalde, but if properly and consistently addressed, hopefully its suffering can be transformed into a more compassionate and empathetic society.”
Pain and shock are part of the process, said Sandy Phillips, who lost her daughter, Jessica Redfield Ghawi, in the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Ghawi was among 12 people who were killed during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Phillips has an idea of what Uvalde survivors face.
“They’re in shock,” she said. “They can’t think clearly. I could not comprehend things. I was unable to read a book from cover to cover for nine years. And that is not unusual.”
Frank DeAngelis was the principal at Columbine High School in 1999 when two students opened fire, killing 12 students and teacher.
He said Columbine High is stronger now than ever.
“So many times, people ask me when will we get back to normal. But you really do have to redefine what is normal,” he said. “This doesn’t have to define the community.”
Authorities plan to raze the school, but experts say unseen scars can linger for decades. In Uvalde, residents say that some things won’t change. Jesse Flores, 51, said he won’t lock his doors more often and won’t treat outsiders any differently after the shooting.
“We can tell when people come from out of town. We treat them like anyone else, like they’re family,” said Flores, who runs a store downtown. “One event is not going to change the way I act.”
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Contributing: Marina Pitofsky, USA TODAY; Niki Griswold, Chuck Lindell and Luz Moreno-Lozano, Austin American-Statesman; The Associated Press