UVALDE — The Uvalde school board approved the terms of Superintendent Hal Harrell’s retirement Wednesday, but did not disclose any details of his exit as leader of a school district still reeling from the worst school shooting in Texas history.
When voting on the retirement terms, trustees referred to discussions that happened behind closed doors during an executive session that lasted hours. Trustees then quickly announced that Gary Patterson would be the interim superintendent. But trustees did not say when Harrell’s departure would take effect or when Patterson would begin as his interim replacement.
On Friday, two days after the meeting, the district announced that Harrell will assume the role of superintendent emeritus on Nov. 1 and will retire on Aug. 31, 2023.
The votes on Wedneday capped a meeting that got heated when residents and families of Robb Elementary shooting victims were not allowed to make public comments about school safety and other matters. On May 24, an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at the elementary school.
For months, some family members of shooting victims called for Harrell’s resignation, arguing that he, and many other school officials, should be held responsible for failing to prepare for a school shooting. A Texas House committee investigation into the shooting provided a damning portrayal of a school district that had strayed from strict adherence to its safety plan and a police response that disregarded its own active shooter training.
The board on Wednesday also approved plans for the search for a long-term superintendent, but again only referred to terms disclosed behind closed doors without publicly disclosing them. Officials said details about the search process will be posted on the district’s website in about a week.
At the start of the meeting, some parents and relatives of the victims and survivors of the May 24 shooting wanted to make comments about safety plans, and what role school board member J.J. Suarez would play in the search for a new superintendent. Suarez is a former Uvalde police officer who worked at Southwest Texas Junior College as division chair of allied health and human services when he responded to the shooting at Robb Elementary.
Residents were interrupted by the board’s lawyer and board members saying some of the parents had not previously signed up to make public comments or their comments were not relevant to the agenda items.
Attendees shouted at the lawyer to let people speak. The board abruptly ended the public comment period and went behind closed doors to discuss the details about Harrell’s retirement. After three hours, the board came out to announce Patterson as the interim superintendent. Reporters were cordoned off from audience members and trustees throughout the meeting.
Harrell announced his decision to retire just under two weeks ago. His pending departure is the latest in a series of school officials who have left, often unwillingly, since the shooting.
After the gunman entered the school May 24, hundreds of law enforcement officers from several local, state and federal agencies descended on the campus. Despite the urgent pleas from officers and parents amassed outside, officers inside the school stayed put outside the classrooms where the gunman massacred his 21 victims. Officers waited more than an hour before confronting the gunman, contradicting law enforcement doctrine dictating that officers immediately confront active shooters.
Just prior to Harrell announcing his retirement earlier this month, school officials suspended the entire district police department after protesters held a dayslong protest outside the Uvalde CISD administrative building during which demonstrators called for the removal of all district officers until investigations into the police department’s response to the shooting are complete.
That suspension of the small police force came on the heels of school officials firing a recently hired district police officer after it became public that she was one of the first state troopers to arrive at Robb Elementary on May 24.
In August, the school district fired the head of the police department, Pete Arredondo, who was widely criticized for his response to the shooting. Last month, the Texas Department of Public Safety said it was investigating five of its 91 officers who responded to the shooting.
William Melhado contributed to this story.