Uvalde school district suspends its entire police department, and superintendent announces retirement plans

The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District board of trustees meets July 18 to hear from members of the community at Uvalde High School. The school district announced Friday it was suspending all of its police departments operations. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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Uvalde school officials on Friday suspended all of the district police department’s activities following the firing of a recently hired district officer who was revealed to have been among the first state troopers to respond to the deadly school shooting in May.

Lt. Miguel Hernandez and Ken Mueller were placed on leave, and other officers employed with the department will fill other roles in the district, according to a Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District press release issued Friday. Mueller decided to retire, the release said. The release did not specify why Hernandez and Mueller were placed on leave. A district spokesperson did not immediately return phone and email messages.

Hours after the announcement, Uvalde school district Superintendent Hal Harrell told staff in a memo that he planned to retire. In his three decades at the district, which he also graduated from, Harrell was a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and deputy superintendent before he was hired for his current position in November 2018. The school district trustees will consider Harrell’s retirement options and a transition plan during a 6 p.m. meeting on Monday, according to the school board's agenda.

“This will be our first discussion and there are no defined timelines set at this point,” Harrell’s memo says. “UCISD has the most resilient and dedicated staff and I know you will continue to support and love our kids until and after my retirement date.”

The district’s decision to suspend its police department arrived 10 days after protesters set up at the Uvalde CISD administrative building to demand the removal of officers from campus grounds until investigations into the police department’s response to the shooting are complete.

[Uvalde schools hire — and then fire — former DPS trooper under investigation for shooting response]

The district said decisions regarding the future of the department had been pending the results of two investigations, but it suspended the department’s activities Friday, citing “recent developments that have uncovered additional concerns with department operations.”

Earlier this week, the school district fired a recently hired district police officer after it became public that she was one of the first state troopers to arrive at Robb Elementary on May 24, when a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in the deadliest school shooting in Texas history. The delayed police response has drawn wide scrutiny and remains under investigation.

School officials fired Crimson Elizondo after CNN reported she was among at least five current and former Department of Public Safety officers the agency is investigating for their response to the shooting.

Elizondo was hired by the school district’s police department after leaving her DPS job. Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters during a campaign stop in New Braunfels on Thursday that the school district had asked DPS about Elizondo.

A July 28 memo to Hernandez from DPS flagged that an allegation of “actions inconsistent with training and Department requirements” regarding Elizondo remained under investigation.

ABC News reported Thursday that Hernandez confirmed receipt, writing, “Got it, thank you so much, MRH,” according to the news report. “MRH” are Hernandez’s initials.

It is unclear whether Elizondo was hired before or after the district received the DPS memo.

Hernandez was at the helm of the school district’s police force after the school system’s board fired the previous chief, Pete Arredondo, who had received much of the early blame for law enforcement’s delayed response in confronting the gunman.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Arredondo, who was among the first officers to arrive at the scene of the shooting, said he never considered himself the incident commander, as state police had cast him. The school district’s active-shooter response plan, co-authored by Arredondo, states the chief will “become the person in control of the efforts of all law enforcement and first responders that arrive at the scene.”

Arredondo had also left his police and campus radios outside the school. He said he believed that carrying the radios would’ve slowed him down. Once inside the school, Arredondo called for keys and extrication tools, believing that the doors to the classrooms where the shooter was inside with the victims were locked.

DPS Director Steve McCraw testified to lawmakers that the classroom doors could not be locked from the inside, indicating they would have been open.

Before his firing from the school district, Arredondo resigned from the Uvalde City Council, to which he had been elected a few weeks before the shooting. City residents have continued pushing for accountability following his termination as the top school officer.

In total, 376 law enforcement officers responded to the Robb Elementary shooting, but none immediately took the lead to coordinate the scene.

No one stopped the gunman due, in part, to what a Texas House investigative committee called “systemic failures and egregious poor decision making” by nearly everyone involved who was in a position of power.

Upon suspending the police department, the district asked DPS for extra troopers for campus and extracurricular activities, according to the Friday news release.

Berlinda Arreola, the grandmother of Amerie Jo Garza, a 10-year-old who was among the 19 students killed in the shooting, was walking into her workplace when she received an email with news about the suspension of the school district’s police department. Arreola told her supervisor she had to go.

“Go go go go,” the boss told her.

She went to meet other family members of the victims, who have been gathering outside the school district administration building to protest. Arreola said she hugged everybody.

“This was a huge step,” she said. “But there’s still a lot of, there’s still a lot more that needs to be done, and so we’re going to continue the fight because we’re not done.”

Jinitzail Hernández contributed to this story.