This story was originally published at 2:23 p.m., and was updated at 4:42 p.m. to include the names of the Thomas Jefferson High School staff members that responded to the shooting and clarify how much the district gets from the state per pupil for school safety.
Staff at Thomas Jefferson High School, near Bachman Lake in northwest Dallas, has trained for the worst and often has had to put it into practice. A tornado destroyed their campus in 2019 and they had to help their traumatized students relocate 20 minutes away to Edison Middle School. Months later, the pandemic shuttered schools, making it difficult to offer those students the same ongoing support.
But despite all of that, or maybe because of it, the staff was ready for Tuesday afternoon. Shots rang out not long after dismissal in the parking lot of the new campus, which welcomed students and teachers a little over two months ago. Raul Velazquez, an athletic trainer, immediately rendered first aid to the injured student, who had been shot in the arm. Bob Romano, the band director called 911 within seconds. Assistant athletic director Brandi Elder called principal Ben Jones to alert him. Jones called Dallas ISD leadership, who arrived on the scene within 10 minutes of getting the call.
Dallas Fire-Rescue, Dallas ISD police, and Dallas police were at TJ within minutes, Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said Wednesday morning. DFR said Tuesday that it arrived on the campus by 4:41 p.m.
There were about 300 students still on campus; the total student body is about 1,400. Other staff members rushed to get the kids back inside the building. The campus was locked down within two minutes after the shooting. It lasted until law enforcement determined the threat was over.
The investigation is ongoing, but the district said three individuals were involved in the shooting. Two suspects were in a car that “drove up,” allegedly shot the victim, and then drove away. The male victim was a student at the school. He was taken to the hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening. At least one of the suspects is also enrolled at Thomas Jefferson. No one has been arrested, but Elizalde said there was no evidence to indicate a fight or altercation preceded the shooting.
The superintendent also said she is “confident” that the event was an isolated incident.
The district and principals at both Thomas Jefferson and the adjacent Walnut Hill International Leadership Academy decided Wednesday was for healing. Students stayed home. Nearly 100 percent of the staff at Thomas Jefferson came to campus to strategize, talk with counselors, and prepare. Only five didn’t come to work. Four were at a conference, Jones said, and the fifth was a teacher’s assistant who was sitting for her teaching exam.
The decision to close school for Wednesday was also a message, Elizalde said.
“We can’t contribute to the normalizing of guns in our communities and if we held school today as usual, I feel that we would be contributing to that normalization,” she said.
Elizalde and Jones were at times a little emotional. The superintendent was employed by Dallas ISD as chief of school leadership during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. She later shepherded Austin ISD through the pandemic. She is used to being the calm, measured presence during turmoil.
“As a mom, this is your absolutely worst nightmare,” she said. On Monday, the day before, she had called Arlington ISD superintendent Marcelo Cavazos to offer her support. Sophomore Ja’Shawn Poirier, 16, had been shot and killed by a 15-year-old while sitting outside Lamar High School that morning.
“And then it happens here,” she said.
The staff, of course, “is reeling,” Elizalde said, but they were committed to starting the healing process themselves so they could be supportive of the students when they arrive Thursday morning.
Jones became visibly emotional when talking about the toll it took on the staff. “Yesterday we had to send text messages to our families to let them know we were OK,” he said. “I got a text message from mine saying, ‘We saw you on TV in the parking lot, so we know you’re OK.’”
Elizalde said allowing the staff time to regroup would be instrumental in helping the rest of the student body recover.
“Students have said that no matter what happens in their neighborhoods, they always feel they have a safe haven at school,” she said. “Every day our students show up and they lean on us for guidance, academic instruction, conversation, support and, truthfully, for our courage.”
“Our community is resilient and strong,” Jones said. “Tomorrow, we will welcome our students back and we will love them and support them.”
In February, state officials told lawmakers that they had completed 2,800 random intruder school inspections at schools across Texas. Ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott after the Uvalde shooting, the inspectors are expected to visit every school district this year. Thomas Jefferson was just renovated and is considered state-of-the-art. Lamar, according to an Arlington ISD official, had recently upgraded the metal detectors at its entrances.
The district, Elizalde said, has been holding training sessions and making improvements as part of a comprehensive plan unrolled last August in response to the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde.
“That comprehensive plan worked,” she said. “That weapon did not make it into the school.”
But for all the work on the state and local level to protect the students inside school buildings, there’s been little done to protect students when they are outside the building. Elizalde acknowledged that fact Wednesday, and said the district would begin looking at each school to see how to better secure the parking lots and outdoor areas.
School districts are also asking state lawmakers to approve legislation that would increase funding for school safety and mental health supports to at least $250 per student, she said. Later, she clarified on Twitter that the request was $200 per student. “Right now, the state gives us $9.73,” she said.
Post-Uvalde, Texas leaders dedicated more than $100 million in state funds to increase school safety and mental health services through August 2023. Nearly half went to bullet-resistant shields for police officers, and more than $17 million was allocated for silent panic alert technology for school campuses. The new legislation would provide ongoing safety and counseling funding.
But the threat of potential violence weighs on Elizalde. “There’s not a day that I don’t worry about something happening on school grounds,” she said. “There isn’t a day that I don’t go home and just pray.”
But even with that worry, she said Wednesday that she felt schools have worked hard to be safe places. “Schools are still a very safe place,” she said, adding that gun violence has broken out in many places where people are gathered, across the city and even the country.
“This is a reflection of where we are today,” the superintendent said.