For the last 18 months, Uvalde, Texas, a small town west of San Antonio, has been on every news station nationwide for the worst nightmare educators, parents and communities could imagine: a school shooting.
On May 24, 2022, an 18-year-old male shot and killed 19 students and two teachers, and wounded at least 17 others at Robb Elementary School. No true count of injuries, either from gunshots or evacuating out of broken windows, exists because some children went straight home after evacuating without being evaluated by emergency personnel.
Russell Lee, the transportation director for Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, was in town on his lunch break picking up food and drinks to bring back to his office staff when was notified of a potential shooting. He recalled getting an alert via Raptor, a school-based app that allows school staff to communicate during an emergency, followed by a call from law enforcement requesting school buses to help evacuate students from Robb Elementary School.
Lee said he called his dispatch team immediately and headed straight to the scene, leaving the transportation routing experts to coordinate the buses. He said transportation sent six buses to the school, four buses to one side of the campus and two buses to the other side. One of the dispatchers drove a bus, unaware that her cousin was one of the teachers already killed inside.
One bus, Lee shared, took injured students to the hospital. The majority of the students were released where the four buses were staged and were transported to the reunification point.
“I was on the same side with the four buses and our dispatchers were here in the office,” he recalled. “The dispatchers were relaying messages as they came. I didn’t have a radio. So, I didn’t know what was going on with the dispatch. I was just at the scene, and I was trying to help as much as possible.”
That day, real-time communication took place entirely via radio. Because Lee had been on his break, he said he didn’t have his radio on him. Still, he said, dispatch did a great job handling the situation and communicating with all the drivers.
The Life of a Dispatcher
Transportation Director Russell Lee at Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District in Texas explained that he currently has four dispatchers on staff, but each has their own areas of expertise within transportation. For example, they individually oversee routing, field and activity trips, transporting students with Individualized Education Programs, and training However, Russell said they are all also cross-trained to handle each other’s functions in case one of them is out.
He shared that Uvalde splits its day into two shifts to ensure two dispatchers are always in the office between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.
“While the buses are running, they’re usually on the radios and on the phones talking to parents,” he said, adding that they have a lot of calls every day asking where the bus is.
Plus, he said, the district is short drivers, so all of the dispatchers also have their commercial driver’s license and drive when needed.
Additionally, Lee said, the district switched about five or so years ago to Tyler Technologies for its routing software, which he shared is more user friendly than their previous provider. During this time, all dispatchers also received new computers and updated digital radios.
He added that police officers responding to the shooting requested the location of the other two buses, which ended up being on the wrong side of the school because that was where all of the emergency vehicles were parked. Added to the traffic congestion were parents, who had gathered to find their children. One of Uvalde’s school bus drivers on scene that day, Sylvia Uriegas, told reporters that parents were banging on her driver’s door demanding to board so they could search for their children.
Otherwise, at least in terms of dispatch and transportation’s role, “it went pretty smoothly for us,” Lee said.
After speaking with Lee for this article, the U.S. Justice Department released a critical incident review of the police response to the mass shooting, citing multiple failures in response to the tragedy, mostly related to incident command. It also examines the communications challenges that took place before and after the shooting.
In her interview with the Texas Tribune for an article published on Dec. 20, 2022, Uriegas said she and other drivers had never been trained for such an emergency. (There are active shooter trainings available for school transportation personnel, as training is different on a bus than in a classroom.)
Based on the DOJ report’s chronology of events, Uriegas’ bus was likely the one that transported six students, two of which had gunshot wounds, and two Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to the hospital. She recalled frantic parents rushing the bus, resulting in her locking her emergency exit, something that went against her training.
“Then she realized nothing in her training seemed to apply to this situation. She only had her instincts,” the article stated.
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Meanwhile, Lee said the Uvalde school district has made changes to its emergency communications protocol. He shared that dispatch worked with the schools to set up an optimal location to release student during these types of emergencies. Lee explained that during the shooting school bus drivers were pulling up at the Civic Center, the site of reunification, but didn’t know where to drop students off or where to park and unload students.
“It was kind of willy-nilly, when the bus got there just pull up as close to the building as possible,” he said. “Since then, we’ve made plans to exactly know where to take the kids and exactly where to put them. Where to drop them off, where the buses pull in and pull out and that kind of stuff.”
Editor’s Note: A previously featured image was incorrectly captioned. It actually showed nearby Northside ISD school buses and transportation employees. Read more about the DOJ report in the February magazine Editor’s Take by Ryan Gray.