In the year since a teenage gunman walked into Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School and killed 19 fourth-graders and two teachers, the building has stood empty, its windows boarded up, its students scattered to other campuses with little chance of maintaining the bonds that used to share .
That began to change Saturday, when residents of a small South Texas town broke ground for a new elementary school to replace the one that became the scene of one of the worst mass school shootings in American history.
“Something terrible happened here,” said Eulalio Diaz Jr., co-chairman of the foundation dedicated to building the new campus, the first to be built in the city since 1985. “The new school, it’s a symbol of moving forward. We will always remember what a new school means. It will be a bright light in a dark time.”
The groundbreaking event began Saturday morning with a minute of silence for the 21 victims and a performance of “El Rey” by the Uvalde High School mariachi band. Some of the visibly moved family members of the victims wiped away tears while the organizers talked about new beginnings and joint work.
“We have to remember the 21 lives that were taken from us,” said Gary Patterson, interim superintendent of the Uvalde School District, speaking in front of a large banner depicting what the new school will look like. “It’s been a remarkable, remarkable journey that I hope will take the students and the community into great strides into the future with this building.”
After a 3-2-1 countdown, dignitaries and area donors, including Jerry Mata, father of Tess Mata, one of the victims, shoveled the first handful of dirt to mark the official groundbreaking. Mr. Mata then approached the rest of the family, shook his head and quietly said, “that was hard.”
In an interview, Mr. Mata later said it reminded him of the time he had to pour dirt over his daughter’s coffin. “It brings you back to that moment, but I had to be a part of it,” he said. “We have to remember why this school is here.”
Emotions remain raw 17 months after the tragedy, and many in this majority Latino community are still searching for explanations as to why it took police officers from several agencies more than an hour to confront the gunman in a pair of connected classrooms where he was occupied by students, many of them are dead or dying.
Robb Elementary School should be demolished as soon as the numerous lawsuits and police investigations are completed and there is no longer a need to secure crime scene evidence.
The new school – 120,000 square feet, on two floors – will include a number of security measures to prevent intruders from entering and facilitate police response, Mr. Diaz said.
Unlike Robb Elementary — which was built in the 1950s, an era when open access and lots of doors were not only welcome but expected — the new school will be relatively restrictive. Staff members will need badges to open doors, and there will be fewer exterior doors, said Tessa A. Benavides-Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Charles Butt Foundation, one of the project’s donors. Visitors will be asked to wait in the lobby where a member of staff behind a secure door will assess whether the person should enter.
“The school will have multiple levels of security,” Ms. Benavides-Cooper said.
The school will have 9-foot-tall gates, a new road to help police and emergency medical personnel access the schoolyard, fences around the playground and other measures that won’t be obvious.
The new campus will also have two playgrounds, one for children with special needs, an air-conditioned gym and a large outdoor courtyard.
The architects said they wanted to make sure the decor included cheerful elements that would also recognize Uvalde’s large Mexican American community, including the colors of papel picado, a traditional Mexican folk art featuring multicolored sheets of paper.
They didn’t want to forget the victims either. It is planned to build a metal tree with two large branches and 19 smaller ones near the school library to commemorate the two teachers and the children who died.
Traditionally, a school district would have to hold a bond election to pay for a new building, a process that can take years.
Instead, the facility will be financed exclusively by the foundation, co-chairman Mr. Diaz, Uvalde Foundation CISD Moving Forwardwhich includes community members from throughout the South Texas region.
The foundation initially raised $10 million from the HEB grocery chain and its owners. Other companies, including Huckabee Inc. and Joeris Construction, donated services. As of October, the foundation has raised about 75 percent of the roughly $60 million needed to build the new campus. Construction is expected to begin this fall, said Tim Miller, executive director.
The foundation hopes to raise the rest of the money through donations and applications for federal and other funds, organizers said.
The school does not yet have a name. By the time it opens in 2025, many former Robb Elementary students will be attending the junior high school. It will welcome a new class of about 800 second, third and fourth grade students.