Tasked with leading the school district in Uvalde, Texas, as the community mourns the 19 students and two teachers killed in a massacre at Robb Elementary School five months ago, interim superintendent Gary Patterson said he has a plan that he hopes will regain trust in the district's ability to protect students and help families heal from the tragedy.
Signs that say "Uvalde Strong" are ubiquitous and murals of the victims are seemingly etched on every intersection of the small town. However, the fallout from the tragedy has also laid bare the divisions in Uvalde as the community processes grief. Patterson said listening to parents will be his first objective.
"You pay your respects, but it feels shallow, you know?" Patterson said in an interview with ABC News. "Whatever I can say to them feels inappropriate, compared to the magnitude of the incident. It's hard to get your head around what happened."
Patterson assumed the role of interim superintendent on Nov. 1 after his predecessor, Hal Harrell, surprised Uvalde by announcing his retirement last month earlier than planned. Patterson said his first priorities are meeting with families, listening to their needs and ensuring new security measures are put in place on all campuses.
Patterson ran the East Central school district in San Antonio for 14 years and he has held additional superintendent posts roles in greater Austin at Taylor school district and in central Texas at Valley Mills school district. Since 2014, he has served as an interim superintendent at six different districts across Texas, leading them temporarily amid challenges such as the spread of COVID-19. He said previous obstacles he's faced do not come close to what Uvalde is facing.
"There is no playbook for this," said Patterson. "There is no curriculum. There is no talking points."
Harrell officially retired on Oct. 19 but will continue on as "superintendent emeritus" during Patterson's transition. Patterson said he has known Harrell for years and noted his respect for his predecessor's work in the community. Harrell told the Uvalde Leader News that his decision to retire was not directly caused by the shooting.
In the months since the shooting, the school district has suspended its entire police force and several law enforcement officials have been fired after footage released from inside a hallway showed first responders waiting over an hour to engage the gunman as he remained inside a classroom.
The school district also came under scrutiny in October for hiring former Texas state trooper Crimson Elizondo for the district's police department despite the fact she had been one of seven troopers suspended as internal investigators with the Texas Department of Public Safety worked to determine whether the troopers failed to follow proper procedures in responding to the May 24 shooting in Uvalde.
Elizondo was one of the first DPS officials to enter the hallway at Robb Elementary School after the shooter gained entry. The trooper did not bring her rifle or vest into the school, according to the results of an internal review by DPS that was detailed to ABC News. She quit as a trooper before she could face possible further internal discipline and she was subsequently fired from the Uvalde school police force.
ABC News was unable to reach Elizondo for comment.
Patterson is now tasked with rebuilding a school district police force that many parents have said they've lost faith in, expressing their disapproval at school board meetings and in protests outside school district offices.
"I expect to slowly, transparently, carefully look for candidates that can fill that police force and look for a chief that has the right characteristics that can relate to people, relate to students [and] manage the department," Patterson said.
He said he doesn't yet know if officers who responded to the scene on May 24 would be considered for rehire.
"It appears that our forces are more than likely going to, at least, start off with officers that weren't involved in the scene on that day," said Patterson.
Patterson said every time news reports focus on the shooting and ongoing investigations, it complicates Uvalde's grieving. He said he wants to help the community heal during his time in the role and that begins with public conversations at school board meetings and other group discussions including with faculty, families and students.
The district will begin accepting applications for a permanent superintendent on Nov. 16. Over the next three months, the district will review applications and conduct interviews. The earliest voting date to hire a new superintendent is Feb. 6, 2023, at least 21 days after naming finalists.