Uvalde Schools Superintendent Hal Harrell, after surprising his small community by announcing his retirement early this month, insists his decision to step down was not directly caused by the May 24 mass shooting at one of his elementary schools.
In his first interview since he said he would be leaving his post, the superintendent told the Uvalde Leader News that retirement has been his plan for a while and he believes that a new district chief would bring a fresh perspective untinted by grief over the killing of 19 students and two of their teachers at Robb Elementary School.
"I feel guilty for saying I’m having a tough time. Because I’ll never have it as tough as they [the families of the May 24 victims] had it that day," Harrell told his local newspaper in the interview published Saturday.
"I can’t complain about my horrible," Harrell said, "because in the back of your mind, you say 'it’s not as horrible as somebody else who is living it.'"
Harrell has declined multiple requests for interviews from ABC News and other media outlets, opting instead to talk only with the news organization he grew up with in his hometown. Except for his years in college, Harrell has lived his whole life in Uvalde and followed in his father’s footsteps to become schools superintendent four years ago. When he retires, he will have worked at the district for more than 30 years.
During his tenure as superintendent, Harrell said he was proud the school district improved its accountability rating from an F to a B.
"The staff did an amazing job and got it to a B. And that was one of the things on my professional goals,” he said in the interview, reported by the newspaper’s Melissa Federspill. "Once that was achieved, it just got to that point of getting tired a little bit, to be honest."
Successes, however, have not been the focus of attention since the May rampage.
In the months since, Harrell and the Uvalde school board have been the subject of intense criticism from a community still grieving and angry over the way law enforcement – led by the district’s small police force – waited more than an hour before attempting to stop the massacre committed by an 18-year-old former Robb student. Parents of the victims attended school board meetings throughout the summer and fall, demanding accountability for mistakes ranging from security breakdowns to police response. All the while, Harrell indicated he would stay at his post and lead the district through this painful period.
"The trust has been damaged. The trust has been broken," Harrell said during an Aug. 9 school board meeting. "It's going to take all of us to fix it.”
Some parents filed grievances against Harrell, which were reviewed in a three-hour closed board hearing on Aug. 22. No actions were announced after the board heard those complaints.
Harrell, for his part, said he would continue to consult with his temporary replacement, interim Superintendent Gary Patterson, until August, and he said he would serve on the board raising funds to build a new Robb Elementary school, the newspaper reported.
“It’s the community, it’s the parents, not just the students who make the district what it is moving forward,” Harrell said. “It’s their energy. It’s their enthusiasm. That keeps it healthy. I am fortunate to have been a part of it for a long time.”