A Uvalde shooting survivor can't bear to return to school. She isn't the only one.
UVALDE — You can still see the bullet fragments in 11-year-old Miah Cerrillo’s left shoulder.
The size of a small coin, the wound could be scar tissue or a birthmark, if not for the small, dark spots just under the surface.
They are also embedded in her back, where, especially on her left side, they still cause her pain. Where the bullet fragments struck her on the sides of her head, the paths they carved burned away some of her hair. Miah loves her hair.
Those little pieces of metal — which her mom says that doctors hope will eventually make their own way out of her skin — are physical reminders of the day that still haunts her and so many other people in her hometown of Uvalde.
Miah was in her fourth grade classroom at Robb Elementary School on May 24, when an 18-year-old wielding a semi-automatic rifle burst through the door and killed 19 students, many of them Miah’s friends, and her two teachers. She survived by covering herself in a classmate’s blood and playing dead.
The massacre, the worst school shooting in Texas history, shocked and devastated the tight-knit community of just over 15,000, where it seems everyone knows someone directly touched by the tragedy. Uvalde school Superintendent Hal Harrell announced in June that no students will be returning to Robb Elementary, which eventually will be demolished and rebuilt. All Robb students will instead be funneled to other elementary schools in the district.
But when students return to classrooms on Tuesday, Miah, still experiencing profound emotional and mental trauma, will not be among them. Instead, she will be attending school virtually, which school officials announced this summer would be an option for the upcoming school year. As of a week before the start of classes, the district said 136 students had enrolled in the virtual academy.
But even those who are returning to classrooms, and their parents, are wracked with fear that a shooting could happen again. Children of all ages in Uvalde suffer from nightmares, anxiety and depression, according to multiple interviews in Uvalde last week.
District officials delayed the start of school to give more time to add security features such as improving locks on doors, adding security cameras and fencing, and having additional patrols. But a week before classes were set to begin, Harrell told parents that some of the safety improvements won't be done in time for the first day of classes, including the installation of additional security cameras and securing school vestibules and entrances. The gunman hopped over a fence on the Robb Elementary campus before entering through an unlocked door.
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Some parents are choosing to send their children to neighboring districts or enroll them in private school, saying they can't trust the district to keep their children safe. The school board fired district Police Chief Pete Arredondo last month after Arredondo was singled out by state officials for his role in the bungled police response to the shooting. Nearly 400 officers from more than a dozen departments, some of them heavily armed and carrying shields, rushed to the school. But for reasons that are still not fully understood, officers waited 77 minutes after first arriving to confront and kill the gunman, even as kids inside, including Miah, called 911 pleading for help.
Parents and students have spent the summer working to hold school district leaders, law enforcement officials and politicians accountable, calling for safer schools, more mental health resources, the resignation of top officials and gun safety measures.
But in spite of their advocacy, officials responsible for the police response have pointed fingers at one another and Gov. Greg Abbott has ignored pleas to reconvene the Legislature to tackle gun violence. Now, the ritual of a school year starting anew, which had been a moment of joy and hope in years past, is dredging up the painful memories of the shooting and exposing wounds that still feel raw.
'Miah is not the same'
Sitting in a local Starbucks on a recent afternoon, Miah was quiet, reserved, her shoulders slightly tensed, her curly hair pulled back into a ponytail, and her glasses dotted by the raindrops of a passing storm. Her mom, Abigale Veloz, explains that loud noises, like the crash of thunder and the pounding of the rain on the Starbucks roof, scare her.
“Miah is not the same,” Veloz said. “Miah was a happy kid, singing, TikToks, dancing. None of my kids were ever afraid of anything. … This is not Miah. Now Miah is afraid of everything, the noise, the sirens, the thunder.”
It’s been just over three months since Miah’s 17-year-old brother, Donavan, watched her emerge from Robb Elementary, covered in blood.
“We thought something had happened to her,” Veloz said. “They put (the survivors) in a bus, and I was talking to her through the window, and I asked her if she was all right. She said it wasn't her blood.”
Miah doesn’t like to talk about what she saw that day. “It was a lot for a kid to see. Even for myself. The next day when she told me detail by detail, I got dizzy, I went to the restroom, I threw up,” Veloz said.
Miah spent the summer at home with her four siblings, rarely leaving the house because it's where she feels safest.
“It's our privacy. It's our home. She feels comfortable,” Veloz said. “We have movie nights where we'll put an air mattress in the living room and everybody grabs a pillow, blanket.”
Miah can’t be in a room by herself, so her family members have developed a buddy system — even when she’s showering, she props a brace at the bottom of the door to keep it open, also letting her older brothers know not to come in.
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Her mom has slept with her every night since May 24, at first in the same bed, and now in a twin bed right next to Miah’s.
“She has a really hard time sleeping. A lot of nightmares. The thunder at night, it's really hard for her,” Veloz said. “When I see her having a hard night, I get up and check on her, and usually we wake up together and we'll just wait, or she'll tell me what she's dreaming about and see if it helps.”
Her mom says she’s taken Miah to her doctor multiple times because the girl hasn’t had an appetite. That’s when Miah told her she was seeing her classmates’ blood on the food in front of her.
Miah now sees a therapist once a week. It’s not something she particularly enjoys, but her mom is considering having her go twice a week, since her nightmares are getting worse.
When Miah does leave the house, her mom says they have to be ready to leave when Miah needs to go home.
“We’ll go to Walmart to get the kids out of the house just to look around and do some shopping, but she has a fear; she thinks men are following her. So once that kicks in, it's time to go,” Veloz said.
Miah has found comfort in self-care — doing face masks, hair, makeup — and drawing, sketching flowers and coloring cow print patterns.
“She's picked up doing makeup. A lot of people are like she's too little. … She is, but (it) keeps her happy at home, like she does her hair, she does my hair. She does her makeup. She loves to go get her nails done,” Veloz said.
She plans on dyeing a portion of her hair next to her face a dark royal blue — her favorite color.
But healing takes time. And with the start of the school year right around the corner, Miah’s mom knew Miah couldn't go back, not yet.
“I know she doesn't want to go to school because she’s afraid it's going to happen again,” Veloz said. “She's not ready to leave home. She's just not. And I'm not going to push her. You know, she's not ready.”
'I have to protect my child': Uvalde parent on not being ready to send Zayon back to school in person
Children who were inside Robb Elementary on May 24, even those who weren’t in the two classrooms the gunman targeted, say they’re not sure when they’ll feel safe at school again.
Eight-year-old Zayon Martinez was in his second grade classroom where his teacher had just started playing a movie, when he heard children screaming outside.
That’s when he said a couple of kids and two teachers ran into his classroom, and then his teacher locked the door and told them to get under their desks.
“They were scared,” Zayon said. “We started crying.”
About the same time, 37-year-old Adam Martinez, Zayon’s father, was eating enchiladas at a restaurant when his phone rang.
“My wife called me, hysterical, saying there was an active shooter at Robb,” Martinez said. “I didn't even pay for the bill. I got up, I took off, and I got there in like, two minutes. I was going down the highway as fast as I could.”
When he got to Robb, he says, there were already quite a few cars and police officers at the school. He ran toward the campus, trying to get as close as he could. That’s when he ended up with a group of parents arguing with law enforcement officers.
“They're pushing the parents back, I was there telling them, ‘Y’all need to go in, why don't y'all go in’ ... and they were like, ‘It's because we're having to deal with you all,’ like blaming us on why they couldn't go in,” Martinez.
More:Watch Uvalde school shooting video obtained by Statesman showing police response
At some point — Zayon doesn’t remember how long it took — officers reached Zayon’s classroom and told the students to run. Martinez’s 18-year-old daughter, Janell, who also had rushed to Robb in a panic, saw Zayon running out of the school and across the hot asphalt to safety, with no shoes. He had taken them off to get comfortable while watching the movie, and amid the fear and panic, forgot to put them back on.
Martinez rushed to pick up his 12-year-old daughter from her middle school, while his wife drove to the civic center, where children were being bused to be reunited with their parents. When she found him, he was crying.
Since then, the Martinezes have tried to make it a normal summer for their kids. Zayon has kept busy playing on a traveling baseball team. But his parents began noticing some changes in him.
“There's some things that he worries about now that he never used to: locked doors, lights that aren't on, hearing loud noises or gunshots. Sometimes you'll hear gunshots here because of hunting or just because of the neighborhood we're in, and he'll be worried,” Martinez said. “He's asking if the door’s locked; he never used to worry about that. … He has nightmares too. There's quite a few nightmares. It’s tough to deal with.”
It wasn’t until recently, when they began shopping for the new school year, that Martinez realized Zayon wasn’t ready to go back to school.
“As we talked about it, he was traumatized, (saying) ‘What do you mean? I don’t want to go,’ like really traumatized,” Martinez said. “He wasn't having it; he wasn't going to go.”
Martinez tried to reassure him that there would be new fencing and more police, but it didn’t calm Zayon like he had hoped.
“He’s like, ‘Well, who cares if there's police officers, they're not going to do anything, they're not going to go in, they're not going to protect me.’ So that's when we kind of made that firm decision that he's not ready,” Martinez said.
They decided that Zayon and his 12-year-old sister would not be going back to campuses this fall, and instead would participate in the Uvalde school district’s virtual option.
“I have to protect my child, and even if he is safer, the perception is that he's not safe. How is he going to learn?” Martinez said. “You’re worried about your life so you can't focus. We have to keep them safe; we have to change that perception.”
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Martinez says he's gotten deeply involved in advocacy work, trying to do his part to push for accountability from the City Council, the school district, law enforcement and elected officials.
"Nothing was happening. Nobody was getting fired. It was such a cowardly act, it was embarrassing to even live in Uvalde, so I had to stand up for what was right," Martinez said. "Sometimes in the small towns, things get pushed under the rug, and I wanted to protest, I wanted to help."
'I am worried that this is going to happen again': Abcde's hesitancy on going back to school
As 11-year-old Abcde (pronounced Ab-si-dee) Flores sits on a plush chair in the El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde, her eyes well up with tears at the first mention of what happened at Robb Elementary.
Abcde went to Robb for third and fourth grade before transferring to another elementary school in the district for its dual language program. She was on a field trip with her classmates when the shooting happened, and she found out about it on the way back.
“A lot of my friends started crying because they had a lot of friends and family members there,” she said, tears rolling down her face. “I was scared because I had a cousin in the school, because I had friends there.”
Two of Abcde’s friends, Ellie Garcia and Layla Salazar, died that day.
Abcde cries every time she thinks about what happened.
She lives with her great-grandmother Maria Melchor, who worries about her. She says Abcde has been depressed for the past three months, and she doesn’t have anyone to speak to about what happened besides her.
Abcde, who loves to draw and dance, made drawings for each of the victims, and she went to all the funerals to say goodbye. But still, her great-grandmother notices she’s deeply sad.
Speaking to Abcde in Spanish, she says, “Sometimes you ask me, ‘Where are the children, where are they, where did they go?’ Well, what I can tell you is that they went with God. That is all I can tell you because they are no longer here.”
“Many of them were her friends, and I try for her to not be thinking too much about that,” Melchor said.
Despite her security fears, she has decided to send Abcde back to school in person in the fall.
“I am worried that this is going to happen again. I would like the schools to have more security, more surveillance for the children,” Melchor said. “But (she was) already locked up because of the pandemic and then because of this. She has to go to get distracted and also to see her friends.”
She also wants Abcde to return to school so she can see the school counselor about how she has been feeling.
The Uvalde school district has expanded the social and emotional support resources available for students who are still struggling with the long-term trauma associated with the shooting, hiring additional mental health professionals and counselors who specialize in trauma and grief. All the district's staff also completed trauma-informed care training prior to the start of school.
“At school they said they were going to have (a counselor) every day of the week; that's why I want her to go to school,” Melchor said. “I also want them to help her a little bit, I mean, because she's a good kid, she gets good grades.”
“I’m kind of nervous,” Abcde said. “(But) I’m kind of excited because I really want to learn new stuff and go see my friends.”
“I’m afraid, scared, worried. But as I told her, I am going to let her take her phone with her now. I used to never let her take it with her so she doesn't get distracted. But now I am going to tell her to take it,” Melchor said, so Abcde can call her if anything happens.
Miah fears for her sibling, Junior, attending pre-K
Miah’s younger sister, 9-year-old Elena, will be attending classes virtually with her, but Miah’s other siblings will be going back to school in person, including her youngest sibling, 4-year-old Miguel Cerrillo Jr., whom they call Junior.
Miah told her mom that Junior is the first person she thought of when the shooting happened — when she thought she wasn’t going to make it, and she wasn’t going to be able to see him grow up.
Now Junior is starting pre-K this fall, and Miah and her mom recently picked him up from a meet-the-teacher night on campus.
“On the way home, she did tear up and say she didn’t want us to send him to school, but I don't want to take that from him because it's his first year, and he was really excited,” Veloz said. “I guess because we’ve been home all summer and just sticking around, she just wants everybody to continue doing that.”
Just over two weeks after the shooting, Miah shared her first-person account of the massacre via a pre-recorded video with the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform for a hearing on gun violence. She emphasized that she’s scared that a mass shooting will happen again, and she wants lawmakers to take action to make sure it doesn’t.
Her mom says Miah told her she’s terrified for the next time an elementary school is attacked with a classroom of children Junior’s age, who won’t be old enough to know to keep quiet and play dead, like she did.
It’s a fear she’s not sure will go away.
“Everybody keeps telling us it’s going to take time, but I'm like, I don't know, I don't see her getting any better, but I don't see her getting any worse. I don't know if that makes sense,” Veloz said. “I think as we go day by day, she just kind of learns how to live with herself.”
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: In Uvalde, school return brings anxiety, security fears after shooting