SANTA FE, Texas – A host of new laws took effect this month to shore up gaps in police training and response to school shootings.
While the response to the mass shooting in Uvalde has been heavily scrutinized, not nearly as much information about the police response to the shooting at Santa Fe High School has been released. Many of those details remain locked behind an unresolved criminal case. This year, families of Santa Fe victims won a big legislative battle which led to a new law granting them access to evidence in the case. Rosie Stone lost her son during the 2018 shooting and recently watched video from the day of the attack.
“It’s been a long road, for one, and it’s been a struggle, especially with all these years not knowing anything,” said Stone.
In May of 2018, Chris Stone was among eight students and two educators killed at Santa Fe High School when a fellow student stormed the campus with guns and homemade bombs. Dimitrios Pagourtzis is charged with these murders but has yet to stand trial because for the past 1,376 days, he has been hospitalized and declared incompetent to stand trial.
“I’m having to sit and wait for this domestic terrorist because that’s what he is; this domestic terrorist to get better in order for me to get any kind of justice for my son and that’s just not fair,” said Stone.
“Have you thought about the possibility he may never go to trial?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“I have, but I can’t lose hope that I will get justice for Chris one day. It’s not something you want to live with and if I lose that hope, I feel like I’ll lose myself,” said Stone.
Earlier this year, Stone and several Santa Fe families, along with families of other murder victims, successfully fought for the passage of Senate Bill 435. This new law gives families of murder victims the chance to view evidence in their loved ones’ cases without opening up that evidence to full public inspection. Stone recently watched video of the mass shootings.
“It took me almost like two, three days for me to be able to bounce back, you know, and start living my life again,” said Stone.
Stone can’t talk about what she saw because the law requires her to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the district attorney’s office. The law also prohibits families from recording or memorializing the evidence in any way. Stone said she plans to watch the video again.
“Then after I do that, I do plan on making more meetings,” Stone said.
Stone and other Santa Fe families said Gov. Greg Abbott promised them a third-party root cause investigation into why warning signs were missed. That investigation never happened.
“We need a third-party investigation,” said Stone. “You know, it’s not easy for any of us parents to sit down in this seat and have these discussions that need to be had, but if we don’t have them then nobody will.”
Stone said she also still has questions about the police’s response to the mass shooting. Since the criminal case remains unadjudicated, many details of the police response have not been made public. Stone said she asked the former Santa Fe ISD police chief, Walter Braun, about the response.
“He looked me dead in my face and said, ‘Rosie, we don’t need to change anything, everything ran perfectly,’” said Stone.
“How does that sit with you?” asked Arnold.
“You know, we have 10 dead in our school district, one of them being my son. You know, you can’t tell me that something ran perfectly and you have 10 dead bodies,” said Stone.
In 2022, Braun became chief of police for the city of Santa Fe. He did not respond to KPRC 2′s request for comment. Santa Fe ISD’s current police chief, Ruben Espinoza, did speak with KPRC 2.
“For those parents who still have questions about ‘Could something have gone differently that day?’ how do you respond to that?” asked Arnold.
“I don’t know how they could have responded any better than they did. I really don’t,” said Espinoza.
Espinoza became chief of the Santa Fe ISD Police Department after the shootings. He did respond that day when he was still with the Texas Department of Public Safety and he’s studied the response in the five years since.
“Tactical-wise it was a bad situation. I worked narcotics 26 years and that situation was a bad deal,” said Espinoza. “That was a bad situation where that shooter was propped up waiting for them to turn that corner.”
Espinoza said Santa Fe ISD Asst. Chief Gary Forward and Ofc. John Barnes were on campus when the shooting started and immediately raced to confront the gunman. Barnes nearly lost his life when a shotgun blast shredded an artery in his arm. Forward applied a life-saving tourniquet to Barnes. The ensuing police response kept the gunman pinned in the art room while students evacuated.
Espinoza also ran us through the security enhancements to Santa Fe campuses since the shooting. Active shooter buttons have been placed throughout the schools and can help police pinpoint a gunman’s location faster than officers following the sound of gunshots and screams. Active shooter buttons on wireless microphones worn by teachers further triangulate areas of danger on campus. Metal detectors have been installed and vestibules at school entrances keep visitors out unless cleared by staff. Two campus security assistants constantly watch for trouble through an extensive network of cameras in the district. Espinoza said five other campus security assistants also help watch over campuses.
“We take an incident and we learn from it and we try to do better in any situation,” said Espinoza.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s Office did respond to KPRC 2’s questions about why a third-party investigation did not happen and whether it was possible to still conduct an investigation.
“Following this despicable act of violence, Governor Abbott held roundtables with parents, students, and educators to ensure they are receiving all the resources and support needed to heal. Since that horrific day, the Governor’s Public Safety Office has awarded nearly $9 million to support Santa Fe recovery efforts, including over $1.8 million in funding for the development of a long-term resiliency center and additional community counseling services. Keeping our schools and communities safe remains a top priority for Governor Abbott, which is why he made school safety an emergency item for the 88th Regular Legislative Session. Working with the Texas Legislature, Governor Abbott signed HB 3 into law this year to help protect Texas students and school faculty through heightened safety and security requirements, armed campus personnel, and improved training for both educators and first responders. Governor Abbott will continue to work with the legislature to expand school safety initiatives and ensure all Texas students can thrive in a safe learning environment.” – Andrew Mahaleris, spokesperson
The charged gunman’s competency will be re-evaluated in February.