When Vanessa Sanchez heard about yet another school shooting that occurred in Texas, she wanted to run and hug her son, a fourth grader at Walter Clarke Elementary School in the Socorro Independent School District.

“I don’t understand how this can happen,” the medical clinic receptionist wrote on Facebook. “How do I talk to him about this? How do I make him feel safe going back to school?”

Following the state’s deadliest school shooting Tuesday, El Paso districts reassured parents that every campus has safety measures in place.

On Tuesday, an 18-year old armed man walked into Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and opened fire, killing 19 children and two teachers and wounding 17 others. The Houston Chronicle reported that the gunman legally purchased two AR-15 style rifles from a federally licensed gun store just days after his 18th birthday, the minimum age to purchase a rifle in Texas.

“As a mother myself, I am troubled by the increasing number of incidents in our country. But as superintendent of schools, I am confident that our staff is doing everything it can to prevent and prepare for any incident,” Diana Sayavedra, El Paso Independent School District superintendent, wrote in a message to district families. “That means that our team continues to review and assess our safety plan periodically and then updates our procedures based on the latest information available.”

EPISD spokesperson Gustavo Reveles stressed that the district’s elementary and middle schools have secure front entryways that require visitors to show a photo ID and state their reason for being at the campus before being granted entry. If someone doesn’t have a valid reason for being there, staff can quickly run a criminal background check and notify EPISD police headquarters.

Funding through the district’s 2016 bond program also allowed it to upgrade camera and lighting systems.

“We’re able to monitor centrally for any activity that is happening on our or around our campuses,” Reveles said.

A security camera at Aoy Elementary School monitors one of the campus’ perimeters. (Alex Hinojosa/El Paso Matters)

In a video message issued Wednesday, Ysleta Independent School District Superintendent Xavier De La Torre said, “It’s hard to find words to this senseless, sick and horrific execution of children and their teachers.”

“Let me assure you that for today and the remainder of the school year there will be heightened and vigilant police and security presence districtwide,” he said, adding that per district protocol, all building exterior doors and classroom doors should be locked at all times and campus grounds should be “continuously monitored.”

James Nunn, Socorro ISD’s coordinator of emergency management, said the district has multiple security measures in place.

“First and foremost, we have the exterior doors locked and the entry doors locked,” Nunn said. “And then we also have entrances throughout the building (that are) monitored and secured. We have a buzzer system for visitors to come into the campuses. We just want parents to know that we take safety and security of our schools very seriously.”

Similar to EPISD, Socorro maintains its own district police force. And it’s looking to revamp its WATCH D.O.G.S. program, Nunn said, in which father-figure volunteers help monitor campus entrances and hallways. The program was active prior to the pandemic, but was placed on a brief hiatus. Parents who are interested in volunteering should contact their school, he said.

Active shooter drills unwanted but necessary

Counselors were on hand Wednesday and throughout this week to help students and staff work through their feelings about the shooting.

Sanchez, 32, said she spoke to her son about the shooting, but didn’t go into details about it with him. Although she has mixed feelings about the active shooter drills in schools and wishes the schools didn’t have to have them, when shootings like this happen, she says, she’s glad they do.

“Sometimes we question why we have to go through security and sign in and only go in through certain doors, and this is a heartbreaking reminder of why it’s all necessary,” Sanchez said.

Priscilla Porras, 42, a dentistry office general manager, has two school-aged children, Nathan and Kaity, in Socorro schools. Nathan is in 5th grade and Kaity is in 8th grade.

“I can’t stop thinking of the parents who woke up without their babies today,” Porras said Wednesday. “This is beyond heartbreaking. I hugged my babies extra tight this morning.”

After they prayed for those families, Porras said, Nathan said he hoped his grandma, who died of COVID-19 in 2020, could find those kids “and be their grandma in heaven.”

Burges High School has several new cameras in place that monitor its perimeter and a gated front entrance. (Alex Hinojosa/El Paso Matters)

A call for stricter gun laws

The Ulvade shooting reopened discussions on gun control laws and school safety. Some Texas Republicans have renewed their call for arming teachers.

That’s not something teachers want, said Norma De La Rosa, president of the El Paso Teachers Association, a union of EPISD teachers and staff.

“We’re there to teach our kids. We’re not there to try to teach our kids and be security and police at the same time,” De La Rosa said, adding that many teachers “do not want to handle a firearm.”

Texas American Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo, in a statement, implored state legislators “to take the common sense actions needed to help stop the slaughter of our children and their teachers where they should feel safest — in our schools.”

“Some of our state leaders need to accept a deep dose of culpability for not taking meaningful steps to help prevent these attacks,” Capo said. “We don’t need another round table of safety experts. We don’t need more active-shooter drills. We need legislation that addresses some of the most basic requirements for ensuring that unstable people don’t take the lives of our children and teachers.”

Veronica Hernandez, president of the Socorro ISD AFT chapter, shared similar sentiments.

“We need gun control, and we need it now,” Hernandez said. “This is ridiculous; what is it going to take?”

Will it take a politician’s child getting gunned down at a school for lawmakers to act, she wondered.

Cindy Ramirez and Molly Smith contributed to this report.

Alex Hinojosa

Alex Hinojosa is an El Paso freelance journalist and a mass communications instructor at El Paso Community College.