Santa Fe mass shooting

School had armed officers, safety plan, prior practice

A small memorial to victims of the the Santa Fe High School mass shooting outside the school in Texas last Saturday. Police said 17-year-old student Dimitrios Pagourtzis has confessed to the shooting.
A small memorial to victims of the the Santa Fe High School mass shooting outside the school in Texas last Saturday. Police said 17-year-old student Dimitrios Pagourtzis has confessed to the shooting.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

That measures failed to prevent incident shows challenge in making schools safer

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

The Santa Fe 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 autumn to eventually arm teachers and staff under the state's school marshal programme, 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 was 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 at the Santa Fe High School 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," Mr J.R. Norman, president of the school district's board of trustees, said last Saturday, standing exhausted at his front door. "Having said that, the way things are, if someone wants to get into a school to create havoc, they can do it."

Last Friday's Santa Fe High School mass shooting - which also wounded 10 others in this rural community outside Houston - again highlighted the despairing challenge at the centre of the ongoing debate over how to make the nation's schools safer.

It also hints at a growing feeling of inevitability, a normalisation of what should be impossible tragedies.

The gunman in Santa Fe used a pistol and a shotgun, firearms common to many South Texas homes, which he took from his father, police said.

They thought they were a hardened target, part of what was 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 at the Santa Fe High School was a tragic sign of failure and needing to do more, but also a sign, to some, that it could have been much worse.

So there were no echoes of the calls to ban assault rifles or raise the minimum age for gun purchases that came after another high school shooting three months ago in Parkland, Florida.

Most residents here did not 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 Ms 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. Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he planned to hold roundtable discussions, starting tomorrow, on how to make schools even more secure.

Representative Randy Weber 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.

Mr Norman said he saw school security as a way to control, not prevent, school violence. And the school district had some practice.

In February, Santa Fe High went into lockdown after a false alarm over an active-shooter situation, resulting in a huge emergency response. The school won a statewide award for its safety programme.

"We can never be overprepared," Mr Norman said. "But we were prepared."

His school board approved a plan last November to allow some school staff to carry guns, joining more than 170 school districts in Texas that have made similar plans.

But Santa Fe was still working on it, he said. People needed to be trained. Details needed to be worked out, such as a requirement that school guns fire only frangible bullets, which break into small pieces and are unlikely to pass through victims, as a way to limit the danger to innocent students.

All of these efforts, Mr Norman said, are "only a way to mitigate what is happening".

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 in which students were barricaded, and shot through the windows, saying "surprise".

The gunman shot a school police officer who approached him, then talked to 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 last Saturday, saying they are "shocked and confused" by what happened and that the incident "seems incompatible with the boy we love".

Mr Nicholas Poehl, the Galveston attorney for Dimitrios, said his client appeared "pretty dazed" when he met him last Saturday, and that it would take time for him to learn what happened.

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.

The mother of 16-year-old victim Shana Fisher told the Los Angeles Times that her daughter publicly spurned and shamed Dimitrios four months ago after getting fed up with his aggressive advances.

So far, investigators have not found any link to terrorism or political extremism in the suspect's background that would offer a motive for the attack, according to a person close to the investigation.

WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2018, with the headline 'School had armed officers, safety plan, prior practice'. Print Edition | Subscribe