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UVALDE — Brett Cross has been camping outside Uvalde’s school district offices for nearly 200 hours. He hasn’t slept much. He’s grieving.
But the 32-year-old wind turbine service technician said he’s not going to end his vigil until Uvalde’s school board suspends the five school district police officers who were at Robb Elementary on May 24, the day an 18-year-old gunman entered the school and killed 19 students and two teachers.
One of the victims was Uziyah Garcia, Cross’s 10-year-old nephew. The school district police were among the hundreds of law enforcement officers who waited more than an hour to confront the gunman, going against active-shooter training that teaches officers to immediately eliminate the threat. A Texas House committee report criticized the local, state and federal law enforcement agencies involved for a chaotic scene that was devoid of clear leadership.
Cross, who was Uziyah’s legal guardian, started the protest on Sept. 27, joined by about a dozen victims’ families and Uvalde residents. Since then, Cross has been staying overnight by himself at the school grounds.
“I am asking … get these officers off of these campuses until it is proved whether or not they were justified in sitting outside of the classroom for 77 minutes,” Cross said.
Cross’ wife, Nikki, frequently joins him during the day. She placed 19 school backpacks and two totes in front of the doors of the school district’s building on Tuesday, representing the 21 lives lost in the shooting.
Friends and Uvalde residents visit regularly and bring the couple food, drinks and fans to beat back the Texas heat.
“The families get together. We laugh. We cry. We tell stories,” Cross said.
Hal Harrell, superintendent of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, met privately with Cross three days into the protest. Harrell said that for security reasons, he cannot afford to suspend school district police officers.
More than 30 Texas Department of Public Safety officers also are on Uvalde school campuses, but Harrell said DPS officers are limited in what they can do and perform different roles from school district police officers. The district did not elaborate on how the roles differ.
“We do not condone this group’s behavior and are seeking to end the disruption,” Harrell wrote in a letter to district families on Sept. 30. “We are working to identify state and local partners who are willing to assist us in restoring peace which will allow us to conduct school business in the manner to which you are accustomed.”
Former Uvalde CISD police Chief Pete Arredondo, who was one of the first officers on the scene and was the designated incident commander in the district’s active-shooter plan, has received much of the blame for the botched response. The district suspended Arredondo on June 22 and fired him Aug. 24.
DPS, the U.S. Department of Justice, a Texas House committee and the Uvalde County district attorney have launched separate investigations into law enforcement’s response.
The announcement didn’t satisfy Cross, who said he wants more transparency and accountability from the school district.
“I honestly feel that they don’t care. They want to keep making excuses,” Cross said. “All they want to do is sweep it under the rug and act like it didn’t happen and go on with their merry lives, collecting their nice little paychecks and not being held accountable.”
Gloria Cazares, the mother of 10-year-old victim Jackie Cazares, joined the protest on the first day and has returned to sit with Cross. She said she was exhausted but that it was critical to pressure the district to launch an independent investigation because it has the jurisdiction to hold school police accountable.
“Nobody would answer us. Nobody would talk to us. They wouldn’t respond to our questions,” Cazares said. “We’ve been waiting 18 weeks. We tried doing it their way, and that didn’t work. So now we’re trying a different way.”
Cross said the idea to protest and camp outside the school district’s building in Uvalde came to him after talking to Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin Oliver was killed in a 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 14 students and three faculty members.
Cross said he spoke to Oliver in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, and Oliver recounted how he protested the government’s lack of action on gun control outside the White House until he got a meeting with federal officials.
After the Parkland shooting, Florida lawmakers enacted a red flag law that allows counties to take guns from people found to pose a “significant danger” to themselves or others. Florida also raised the minimum age for buying firearms from 18 to 21.
The Uvalde families have called for the passage of a Texas red flag law, a proposal that has failed to get traction in the Texas Legislature. They have also pushed to raise the minimum age to buy AR-style rifles like those purchased by the Robb Elementary shooter.
Gov. Greg Abbott said in last Friday’s gubernatorial debate with Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke that raising the age minimum to buy assault-style rifles in Texas would be unconstitutional and that he opposed a red flag law because it “would deny lawful Texas gun owners their right to due process.”
Cross is urging people to vote in the November elections. He said he wants Abbott out of office.
“These people in power forget that they work for us, not the other way around,” he said. “It’s high time that we make them remember that.”
Cross said he yearns for a good night’s sleep in his bed and to be with his family. But he won’t go home until the police officers are suspended.
“Nothing I say or do is going to bring back [Uziyah], but I can help craft and maintain a better future for the rest of my kids and for everybody else’s kids,” he said.