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Uvalde's city manager reflects on where the community is 3 months after mass shooting

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today marks three months since the deadly shooting here at Robb Elementary School. It's the deadliest shooting ever at a Texas public school. And if you ask how the community is doing at this point...

VINCE DIPIAZZA: In a way, it's still reeling. I mean, we're still trying to get through this and figure out how to cope. And people are still hurting. And I think this is going to go on for a long time, really.

SUMMERS: That's Vince DiPiazza, Uvalde's city manager. He's one of the few city leaders we've been able to speak with while reporting in the city this week. Since the shooting, damning reports have emerged about the police response and how long it took to confront and subdue the gunman. I spoke with DiPiazza hours before a school district meeting that resulted in the termination of School Police Chief Pete Arredondo for his role that day. DiPiazza said he could not get into specifics about ongoing investigations into the police response, but he was candid about what the process of trying to move through this tragedy has been like. I asked him what he thought the rest of the country should understand about Uvalde today.

DIPIAZZA: I think any community is more complicated than the headlines would show. But, you know, the dynamics are always a lot more complicated than that. And people are more complicated than that. It's hard to capture the soul of a community in that.

SUMMERS: And I do just want to ask, I mean, we're talking to you because you're the city manager here, but you've also lived here for seven-plus years. How have you been wrapping your head around all of this? How are you doing personally?

DIPIAZZA: I would say it's pretty high stress. I would say, personally, you know, I'm doing about as well as anybody else. You know, there's a lot to deal with here, and there's this big cloud that's over us all because of the incident. But we still have to do the things that we have to do. We still have to pick up the garbage. We still have to, you know, take care of the parks. We still have to fix streets and waterlines and all that kind of stuff that you do as a city, and all that in the environment of the aftermath of the event. There's a lot of sadness, for sure.

SUMMERS: From your perch as city manager, what's your top priority now in terms of helping the community continue to move forward from something so awful?

DIPIAZZA: Well, we have to deal with the negative aspects of the event. That's sort of on our plate right now. It's not - obviously, the law enforcement response is a big deal. And that's what's generated probably the most negative publicity and most negative feeling here locally. So we've, you know, launched an internal investigation. That, in itself, has been fairly difficult because there are several investigations going on. If you know about the law enforcement response, then you know that there were a bunch of agencies present. And so the dynamics are pretty complicated. But I'm only responsible and can only be responsible for the people that work for the city. And so we felt it necessary to try to do an investigation into the actions of our own people on that scene. And that's got to run its course.

There's so much about this that is distressing and so much about this that seems not to have gone very well. That's probably an understatement. But we have to get this part right. We have to get to the bottom of it. And we're staying out of it. You know, we hired a private investigator, you would probably say, whereas in the small towns I've been in in the past, when we had some high-level police issues to investigate, we would typically call the state police, the Texas Rangers. Well, they're heavily involved in this. And that was not - that didn't - would not have seemed to be a wise approach. So we've gone completely outside. And we're leaving it in that person and his group's hands.

SUMMERS: What has the city government been able to do to help people? We've talked to people who are concerned about financial assistance. To what degree is the city government or you all involved in that?

DIPIAZZA: There have been some questions about that, and we've heard that certain people weren't getting the assistance they thought they needed. I believe that's being taken care of. But at this point, the city's pretty much out of that. That's been mostly not necessarily by choice, but the state has its plan. And then it's probably better for - anyway for us not to be the the handlers of that money. And so the local nonprofits that are set up to do things like that can handle that part of it.

SUMMERS: As we've been talking to people, a number of people have told us that this town has been changed forever by what happened on May 24, that some of the divisions and deep wounds that have been created, people told us they don't think they can ever be healed. What do you make of that?

DIPIAZZA: I understand. I understand it. Right now, from where I sit, I can see that. Is this the thing that's - that, you know, when you hear the name Uvalde, is this the thing that is instantly going to be in people's memories, you know? And I think that's going to be the case for a long time. And there's a lot more to this town than that. But, yeah, the wounds are going to be deep. I don't think closure is possible, but at some point, you kind of have to learn to live with it.

SUMMERS: I know that there is a lot that cannot be said about the investigation, but one of the reasons we wanted to be here now is because this town's about to start another school year. And the public schools - I know some folks are already doing home school. Some of the Catholic schools, folks are already headed back. Is there anything you can say about - as the person who oversees police - about anything that's changed that kids might see when they go back to school? I have to imagine parents are feeling all kinds of ways about sending their children back.

DIPIAZZA: Yeah, this is a thing here and - the issue of sending your kids to school. And kids are pretty resilient. It's - you know, I think the parents are worrying primarily. And I'm a grandpa now, but I can understand that. But I think about that. And so, what are you going to see different? The school district, I know, is working on physical security, things like building fences and things like that. There'll be increased law enforcement presence from school district, from the police department, our police department and from the state police. It needs to be noticeable, but I hope it's not overbearing. I don't know how far it will go. But we can harden targets. We can put law enforcement in schools. We can teach the kids how to - you know, what to do when the event occurs. That's all after the fact.

This kid that did this was a troubled young man. And he left clues. He left clues along the way. I think as a society - I think we're smart enough to figure this out. But any intervention in an earlier stage is going to - at least has the potential to make somebody's life better over the long haul. We need to figure out how to nudge these young folks off this destructive path. And, you know, again, I think we have the knowledge to do this; whether we have the will, the political will and the willingness to commit any resources to it, that I don't know.

SUMMERS: Well, thank you so much for being so generous with your time. I hope we get to come back and cover something that's not this one day.

DIPIAZZA: Yeah. I hope you'll come back to cover some of the good stuff.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking to parents and kids who were impacted by the shooting at Robb Elementary. You'll hear those voices in the coming days as the community prepares for the start of a new school year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Alejandra Marquez Janse