Steel classroom doors opened outward in Uvalde, adding challenge for police

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When Border Patrol tactical agents and police officers arrived in the hallway of a Uvalde, Tex., elementary school on May 24, they faced an immediate disadvantage: a gunman, and his victims, were shut inside adjoining classrooms behind metal doors.

The tactical teams, known as BORTAC, are well-versed in the breaching techniques used to raid stash houses along the US-Mexico border that they believe are occupied by traffickers and human smugglers. In those scenarios, a deadbolt lock on the door of a residential home is typically no match for the heavy, cylinder-shaped battering ram agents can use to bash their way inside.

But the secure classroom doors at Robb Elementary School were different. They had metal frames, and opened outward, making it impossible to force them open with a ram, according to a current and a former US Customs and Border Protection official who had been briefed on the May 24 mass shooting.

Much is still unclear about how the massacre unfolded, with conflicting accounts of why police waited well over an hour before entering the classroom to confront the gunman who fatally shot 19 children and two teachers and injured several more.

But the design of the classroom doors added significantly to the challenge officers facing, according to experts and officials briefed on what happened. The teachers and their students were bleeding, and children called 911 to plead for help, agents and officers who had been told the doors were locked struggled to locate keys and the tools to force their way in, officials have said.

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The generation of mass shooting attacks at US schools has prompted a hardening of American classrooms, starting with sturdy, locking doors designed to protect students from intruders. Experts say those doors should be kept closed at all times to provide maximum protection. At Robb Elementary, however, the doors were apparently not locked when 18-year-old Salvador Ramos entered.

“An outward opening door is the worst-case scenario when you’re trying to breach,” said Sgt. Scott Banes of the Fort Worth Police Department, who spent 12 years on a special response team that regularly trained for active shooters and other emergency calls.

If kids are actively being killed or are dying, officers must do whatever they can to get inside the classroom, Banes said, even if they don’t have the ideal tools.

“You might use rocks to break windows,” he said. “You might use a sledgehammer on the cinder block walls. You push, push, push, until the threat is neutralized or isolated, so he cannot hurt anyone else.”

The attack at Robb Elementary went on for 77 minutes. State police are now investigating why it took authorities so long to gain entry to the two adjoining classrooms; the Justice Department is also conducting an after-action review.

Police accounts of what happened have shifted dramatically over the last two weeks, and news organizations have been piecing details together by citing documents linked to the investigation and interviews with law enforcement officials.

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Pete Arredondo, the police chief for the Uvalde school district who is at the center of public outcry over the delayed entry, said in an interview with the Texas Tribune published Thursday that the steel door jambs worked to the shooter’s advantage by keeping officers out.

Arredondo, whose lawyer’s office said he was not available for an interview on Friday, told the Tribune that he left his radio behind to better wield his service weapon against the attacker. He also said he tried “dozens of keys” but none fit the classroom doors. It took more than an hour for officers to locate the right key and obtain the ballistic shield that gave the BORTAC agents protection as they crossed the threshold of the door.

Without the shield, anyone opening the doors outward would face a barrage of fire from the shooter’s AR-15 rifle. Two officers had already been grazed by bullets after attempting to confront the shooter in the first several minutes of the attack; they pulled back as Arredondo treated the incident as a standoff with a barricaded suspect, rather than an urgent confrontation with an active shooter, authorities have said.

In law enforcement, breaching agencies is a specialized skill that officers can spend years perfecting. Some agencies stick to manual breaching, using relatively simple tools like battering rams and pry bars. Other officers train in ballistic breaching, using specific shotgun ammunition that is meant to dissolve when it strikes a hard surface, making it potentially safer for anyone on the other side of the door. Many big city SWAT teams use explosive breaching, a quick and efficient way to defeat most doors if operators are well trained.

Steel doors with steel frames that open outward can be one of the most difficult breaches for law enforcement, said Marcus “Sandy” Wall, a retired member of the Houston SWAT team, because officers have to pry the door open instead of ramming it. Difficulty can vary, depending on hardware and whether the frame is attached to studs. But the danger increases dramatically when an active shooter is firing from the other side of the door, which was the case in Uvalde, Wall said.

Pete Arredondo spent years preparing for a school shooting. Then it happened.

Curtis S. Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, said secure doors have been added to classrooms across the country, and when locked, they provide excellent protection if a gunman arrives on campus. But, he insisted, authorities have to have a way to quickly open them — and should practice doing so during safety drills.

It’s unclear whether the school officers or local police in Uvalde did so.

“It’s mind-boggling to someone with more than 25 years in law enforcement that you’re not entering that room for over an hour,” Lavarello said.

“The door opening outward is not a valid excuse for no penetration into that classroom,” he said. “Saying ‘we can’t get a key’ is foolishness.’”

Kenneth S. Trump, a school safety consultant who helps schools and police departments prepare for mass shooting incidents, said there are basic measures authorities can take to avoid the confusion that appears to have hampered the Uvalde response and kept officers outside in the hallway.

Uvalde schools have a safety plan. The shooting showed its limits.

Police departments should have master keys to all school classrooms, and blueprints of each building readily available, either in patrol cars or in digital form on officers’ devices.

“That way, through planning and preparation, you know what are the types of doors in the building, so you can plan how you are going to breach each room,” Trump said. “It means you probably need a master key, so you won’t be waiting for Mr. Jing-a-ling to come along with 50 keys, and then you’re guessing.”

“You can’t create an emergency plan in the parking lot in the middle of the emergency,” Trump said. “You have to do this grunt work ahead of time, and it takes attention to detail.”

The BORTAC members who arrived at Robb first were not part of a single team, according to a CBP official with direct knowledge of what occurred, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share preliminary details of the investigation. One was a field-level supervisor, the CBP official said. Several had been conducting routine patrol duties that day.

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BORTAC members do not typically carry battering rams and ballistic shields in their vehicles unless they’re preparing for a specific tactical operation against a target such as a stash house, the official said.

In other tactical operations, BORTAC teams might position sharpshooters to track targets through windows. But the classroom windows at Robb were tinted or obscured by blinds, the official said, and with the lights off it was impossible for the officers and agents outside to see where the shooter was.

A US Marshal brought the shield to the tactical team, or “stack,” that was preparing to enter the classroom and confront the shooter. Once the officers on scene were able to unlock the doors, the BORTAC agents led a small team into the classroom. The gunman opened fire, police have said, and agents killed him.

What they encountered next was horrific. Agents entering the classroom saw “children piled up against a wall,” said the CBP official. The children appeared to have huddled close to each other for protection and fallen together as the shooter attacked them point-blank with the powerful rifle.

One of the agents pulled a child who was still alive out of the pile of small bodies, the official said. Others carried children wounded and bleeding to ambulances.

Roy Guerrero testified at a House hearing on gun violence on June 8. Guerrero is a pediatrician in Uvalde, Tex. (Video: The Washington Post)

Roy Guer, a pediatrician in Uvalde who test lawmakers in Washington, described the damage he suffered in front of when victims were brought to the hospital. “Two children, whose bodies had been pulverized by the bullets fired at them, decapitated, whose flesh had ripped apart, that the only clue as to their identities were the blood-spattered cartoon clothes still clinging to them,” he said.

After other officers and emergency responders took over the classroom scene, dozens of Border Patrol agents gathered under the shade of a tree between the school and the road, the CBP official said. Some agents were in a state of shock, shaking and crying.

The Border Patrol agents returned as a group to their station in Uvalde, the official said.

Several had to take off their uniforms and discard them, because they were soaked in blood.

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