Uvalde teacher who survived the mass shooting feels 'abandoned' by the school district
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Uvalde teacher who survived the mass shooting feels 'abandoned' by the school district

Apr 05, 2023

UVALDE, Texas — Arnulfo Reyes, the sole survivor of Classroom 111 at Robb Elementary School, says the district where he taught for more than a decade "abandoned" him in the year since a gunman killed 11 of his students and left him with injuries, both emotional and physical, that will never fully heal.

He has heard only twice from Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent Gary Patterson, with each phone call lasting less than five minutes, Reyes said. Patterson's predecessor, Hal Harrell, waited a month after the May 24 massacre to contact him.

"I refused him, because he had a whole month to visit me," Reyes said.

Neither Patterson nor Harrell, who was the superintendent at the time of the shooting, responded to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the school district did not reply to multiple phone calls and emails.

"They’ve never really given support," said Reyes, 46. "They just forgot us."

The school district has been criticized for renewing contracts for several employees and administrators who were accused of mishandling communications with parents the day of the shooting. Parents have also complained about being silenced during heated school board meetings and being banned from school district property.

Although several parents sued the school district and police for how they handled the shooting, including waiting 77 minutes before they entered the two classrooms where the gunman was holed up and shooting with a high-powered rifle, Reyes chose not to. He said suing would not benefit his recovery.

Instead, he and more than a dozen other plaintiffs filed a civil claim against the deceased shooter, his family and companies that made security and communications equipment used in the response.

"They should have protected the school a long time ago before it even happened," Reyes said of district officials. "I don't think they’ll change, unfortunately."

He is seeking at least $1 million in damages, which could rise as he accumulates more medical bills, said his lawyer, Mark DiCarlo.

Reyes has undergone 11 operations since the rampage in Uvalde, about 80 miles west of San Antonio. Nineteen students and two teachers were killed, unleashing a torrent of grief, anger and lingering questions in the close-knit community.

As law enforcement officers waited in the hallway for more than an hour for a better-equipped Border Patrol SWAT team to arrive, Reyes lay on the floor of his classroom surrounded by dead and dying children.

He wondered when help would come and hoped at least some of the students he told to play dead survived. None did.

Reyes was shot multiple times in an arm, his back and a lung. A titanium rod connects his elbow to his wrist, where the bone was shattered. Sleep eludes him. Most days, the only interaction he has with people is during one of his many medical appointments.

Reyes, who lives alone with his Chihuahua, has spent most of the year secluded from the greater community, rarely leaving his home and only occasionally allowing close friends and family members to visit, he said. He shops for groceries early in the morning before customers, with their sideways glances and hushed whispers, fill the aisles. He said he hates being the subject of gossip, and he has shied away from media interviews in recent months.

Locked away in his home, Reyes questions whether he could have done something differently on that gruesome day. He has replayed the afternoon countless times in his mind, sometimes breaking into sobs and crying until he is exhausted.

"I try to keep myself busy with little projects, just trying to change my mindset to think about the happy times I had with them — how they acted, how they talked," Reyes said. "Sometimes it does beat me. I sob and try to let it out."

The feeling he cannot shake, he said, is that of abandonment, by the responding law enforcement officers who waited more than 70 minutes to take down the shooter and then by the school district that has been absent during his recovery.

"I thought they would have been more caring, more compassionate," he said. "I feel like I never even worked for them, like I’m nobody. I’m nobody to them."

His fear keeps him mostly homebound, and he wonders whether anyone would come to his rescue if he were in a car accident or experienced a medical emergency. He is ambivalent about returning to work in a school district that has banned angry parents from board meetings and seemingly offers few resources to survivors.

Reyes said his sole comfort is knowing he is a champion for his students and the others at Robb Elementary.

"I have to be a voice for my 11 students," he said. "But I do mean all of them. We have to be a voice for them."

Alicia Victoria Lozano is a California-based reporter for NBC News focusing on climate change, wildfires and the changing politics of drug laws.