Texas, a friend used to say, is hard on women and little things. That would come to mind over the years when reporting seemed to bear it out. In 2015, I watched a foster mother testify in court, via telephone from her daughter’s hospital bedside, that state cuts to the Medicaid acute therapy program were having disastrous consequences for her child’s incurable, debilitating genetic disorder. In 2021, an eleven-year-old boy in Conroe suffocated from carbon monoxide poisoning after seeing snow for the first time, as his family tried to keep their home warm after the collapse of a horribly mismanaged electrical grid. And then there were the perennial horror stories from the state’s spike-pit child welfare system—a three-year-old found dead, bleeding from the ears, after his day care repeatedly warned state agents about signs of abuse by his foster parents; a teenage girl who killed herself the moment she could despite orders that she was never to be left alone; and countless others who survive through the heavy prescription of psychotropic meds before being kicked out to the streets at the age of eighteen.
Each revelation of new misery brings a new wave of revulsion, but—I hate to say this—as you learn more about how the social safety net works in Texas, the revulsion starts to fade, and it becomes a dull undercurrent to an awareness of the world instead of something sharp that pokes through. As it fades, so comes the realization that it has faded in the same way for those in power—and that nothing gets fixed because leaders have been immunized from caring to an even greater degree. The grid remains unsteady; children in foster care still get abused. Legislators make a show of passing partial, temporary fixes and resist looking at problems head-on. The Texas Legislature, with all its self-regard and jocularity and pride in itself as an institution, turns out to be suffused with a very dull and banal kind of evil.
On Tuesday, though, something poked through. For me, it wasn’t the knowledge that there had been another school shooting. Who could be surprised by that? Every detail was familiar. A once-bullied eighteen-year-old, two AR-15s, 22 dead, and 19 injured. The thing that shocked was the pictures of the dead when they lived. They were so little! Do you remember what it was like to have a body that small? A round fired by an AR-15 at close range enters the human body at three times the speed as those fired by a handgun, disintegrating and liquefying bones and organs around it. “It’s like a grenade goes off in there,” one trauma surgeon told Wired. Parents had to submit DNA samples so their kids could be accurately identified.
This spectacular violence, it sometimes feels, has not left much of us. At his initial press conference, Governor Greg Abbott wore his traditional white disaster-response shirt and offered details of the massacre as if reading a weather report. At a press conference the next day, where the governor sat alongside Texas senator Ted Cruz and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Abbott told Texans that the disaster “could have been worse,” and the primary flash of anger shown by elected officials came when Beto O’Rourke, who appeared in the crowd, tried to talk over them.
Appearing on Newsmax TV the day of the shooting, state attorney general Ken Paxton suggested that more armed guards at schools would help, “because it’s not going to be the last time.” Can you believe that, as a response from one of the most powerful elected officials in the state to a massacre of fourth graders? “It’s not going to be the last time.” There used to be at least a perfunctory mourning period, some hugs given in front of cameras, before those in power turned to one another other and shrugged. But in truth, leaders are only handling this the way they think about the foster care system they oversee, and every other death trap run by the state. The revulsion dulls, the novelty fades, and it becomes normal.
The shooting took place on the day of the Texas primary runoff. The composition of the Legislature and the rest of state government for the next two and a half years was set that night, barring extraordinary circumstances, by the conclusion of the Republican primary, which in Texas is more influential than the general election. Paxton, who had shrugged off the Uvalde shooting on Newsmax while wearing a campaign T-shirt, won renomination and almost certainly a third term in office.
It is a grotesque and cruel irony that the Republican primary this year, and several years of political activity before it, have been dominated by an all-consuming and comically misdirected argument about the “protection” of children and by a war on public schools. There was essentially no policy contested in the GOP primary that could affect the practical and economic circumstances of all Texans. (There rarely is.) There was, however, ceaseless argument about the well-being of children, their morals, their internal lives.
The most acute panic was over transgender children. In February, Paxton’s office issued a formal opinion holding that the prescription of puberty blockers to transgender children represented “child abuse.” Shortly after, Abbott tasked the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, an overworked and underfunded agency he had overseen for close to eight years, with investigating the families of transgender children for child abuse.
The more widespread crisis concerned books. The panic was conjured by parents and elected officials in equal measure. The first target was books with “divisive” material about race. Then, elected officials began to panic about “pornography” in schools, a category that mostly included literature featuring queer characters and sexuality. Lawmakers proposed lists of books to be banned. In November, Abbott ordered the Texas Education Agency to investigate cases of “obscene material” in public schools and prosecute those responsible “to the fullest extent of the law,” because, as he wrote, it had to be a top priority to “protect” Texas students.
Public school teachers and children’s librarians—two professions that offer a strongly beneficial service to society for little pay—became villains for parents and candidates alike. They were called “groomers” and pedophiles on social media. In a press release, Abbott called for criminal charges to be brought if librarians were found to have put “pornography” in front of children. In Granbury, southwest of Fort Worth, half a year later, one woman lodged a criminal complaint against the librarians of Hood County ISD, prompting a police investigation. At a subsequent school board meeting, she condemned the fact that a committee brought together to review troublesome books had “too many” librarians instead of “people with good moral standards.”
The deterioration spread. A record number of public school teachers, already weary from the pandemic and now faced with a sort of siege, started quitting en masse—and forfeiting their licenses, indicating they probably wouldn’t come back. “I’m tired of getting punched. It shouldn’t be like this,” ninth grade math teacher Gloria Ogboaloh told Texas Monthly. As more teachers left, the quality of life for remaining educators got worse. Then, just four months after ordering that libraries be investigated, Abbott ordered the TEA to create a task force to investigate why so many teachers were quitting.
A year of mostly manufactured outrage about the specter of loose morals in public education had the effect of making all public education worse. Test scores have dropped across the board. State leaders began to lay the framework for a renewed push to expand school choice and perhaps introduce a voucher system to Texas.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Robb Elementary School massacre has become another club to beat public schools with, under the guise of “protecting children.” The day after the Uvalde shooting, a writer in the conservative publication the Federalist wrote that parents “can’t trust government schools” to “safeguard your children from harm,” and that they should “do [their] best to prevent them from being sitting ducks at frequently targeted locations such as schools” by homeschooling them. Separate yourself from whatever feeling of familiarity you have with this line of thinking. Had you read it about another culture, or another time, would you not consider it evidence of precipitous societal collapse?
It’s a tragedy that a moral panic has made Texas’s children’s lives worse, and their futures dimmer, by weakening schools. It’s another tragedy that the time spent fighting over library books has sucked oxygen from the discourse when so many of our children are suffering. Not because of books in which men kiss, or because their classmates wear dresses instead of pants, but because this has been a universally difficult and traumatic time for children.
The children who died in Uvalde lived the last quarter of their lives during a global pandemic that has put pressure on everyone. Some 90,000 Texans have died, which means many young Texans will have lost a relative, or a teacher, or even a parent. Many of their families will have been uprooted by the economic dislocations of the past few years. The political upheavals over that same period have been frightening even to adults, who talk in hushed tones about the future of the republic.
Younger children in Texas may also have been scarred by the experience of the 2021 freeze, which left a deeper impression on most of us than folks outside the state might be able to understand. Older children know that an unstable climate and a warming planet are their inheritance. On top of all this, there are school shootings. Even in the schools where they haven’t yet occurred, kids see vendors selling bulletproof backpacks, and architects design buildings with broken-up lines of sight and a surfeit of hiding places, taking cues from medieval fortresses. Baby boomers had duck-and-cover drills, horrifying in their own way. But the atomic bomb was an abstraction: the drills would have taken on a much different tone if, every six months or so, a Soviet ICBM actually had fallen near a random American school.
School shootings are a fact. We ask children, on a regular basis, to rehearse being hunted, as a prophylactic against the real chance that they may someday be hunted. It cannot be hard for anyone who participates to imagine how it might feel for their friends to be liquefied. How can anyone be expected to live this way, let alone a fifth grader? We should remember that the seventeen-year-old shooter at Santa Fe High School and the eighteen-year-old shooter in Uvalde were children too, who likely grew up taking part in their own mass shooting drills. We have to help them—we must. But our state has spent the past year talking about library books.
A very simple way the government could help children is to ensure that schools are equipped with figures whose primary jobs aren’t to teach but to look after kids. Would you like to know an ugly fact? If you attended a Texas public school decades ago, you may have a strong memory of a school counselor, or a guidance counselor. Today, Texas law requires that school districts have one such counselor for every 500 elementary students. Groups such as the Texas Association of School Boards take a downright indulgent view that there should be a counselor for every 350 students. Imagine being tasked with searching for signs of suicidal behavior, or sexual abuse, or the compulsion to hurt others, or simply overbearing sadness, in a crowd of 350 children. Social scientists, for what it’s worth, think we have the ability to know some 150 separate individuals—names, faces, characteristics—and that’s everyone, including friends, family and coworkers.
Most state leaders, it seems, believe that none of this has anything to do with them—that they don’t have the power to materially change lives for the better. But they’re mistaken, of course. There’s a profound poverty of imagination at the Legislature. If a committee chair takes the gavel when state law requires one counselor for six hundred students and he or she moves the standard to five hundred, leaders celebrate themselves for being forward-thinking, and reformers. When a new employer comes to Dallas, state leadership is happy to take credit. But when the state’s children are suffocating—perhaps literally, in the case of the decapitation of the Medicaid acute therapy program—that’s the result of multiple complex factors. Don’t you think it’s a shame we no longer have prayer in school?
Folks further up the hierarchy, such as Abbott, content themselves with telling happy stories. At a Wednesday press conference following the Uvalde shooting, when Abbott declared that the disaster “could have been worse”—an incredible thing to say about the slaughter of a fourth grade class, governor, but do go on—he added that “the reason it was not worse is because law enforcement officials did what they do. They showed amazing courage by running toward gunfire for the singular purpose of trying to save lives.”
This story was delivered in the manner of an animatronic robot at a Chuck E. Cheese stage show—as if automatic, and as if it had little to do with the context in which it was given. Indeed, it didn’t. First responders, based on reporting, did not do much running toward anything. The Associated Press reports that, after the incident began, the police stood outside the school for about an hour while parents begged them to go inside and save their kids. (The most recent statement from the Uvalde Police Department reports that officers responded “within minutes,” but it doesn’t provide any further account of police activity.) Abbott’s own state police chief, bureaucratic trench fighter Steve McCraw, told the media that law enforcement had skillfully “contain[ed the shooter] in the classroom” where students were shot, in the same way, one supposes, that a bull can be contained in a china shop.
If Texas showed great disrespect to the Uvalde students in life—and indeed it did—then we have also disrespected them in death. McCraw delivered his remarks at the press conference that O’Rourke attended in order to interrupt, and to ask questions. Republicans were quick to decry the gubernatorial candidate’s presence as “political theater.” And of course it was. But the press conference itself was also political theater: a stage play showing top men in cool command of the situation, with a happy moral to share and heroes to elevate. And of course, blameless all. They are always blameless. We are lucky to have such men above us.
One of the main progenitors of the recent panic in Texas over transgender kids is a man named Jeff Younger. Younger and his ex-wife divorced when his children were young. One of their kids was transgender and began identifying as a girl, and Younger’s ex-wife encouraged her to take a new name and present in public as female. Younger saw this as a great loss—the loss of his son—and took to the courts, at great expense, to fight to take custody and de-transition his child. The story is long and complicated, but the courts were unsympathetic. Younger became a cause célèbre on the right, and this year ran to represent part of Tarrant County in the state House, primarily on the issue of passing laws to block kids from transitioning. He brought much of the GOP along with him, and a standard plank of Republican legislative candidates—many of whom are sure to be elected in November—is to take action against transgender children. On the night of the Uvalde shooting, Younger lost his runoff to Ben Bumgarner, who owns a firearms company that makes modified AR-15s.
There’s a story Younger likes to tell. It’s terribly, terribly sad, although not in the way he intends. As a child, he wrote in the Eagle Forum Report, a newsletter offered by the late conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly’s group, he had no father. “My mother had exiled him by divorce when I was eight years old.” All day long, he would sit in a ditch outside his house. “With a stick I would spell my father’s name in the dirt. I would sit there all day, waiting for my father to come back.” His missing father haunted him into adulthood, until Younger eventually found him, a bitter drunk, with whom he then had to cut ties again.
This is a terrible story, one for which Younger deserves compassion and love. But then Younger continues his story. His own marriage failed. He found meaning in life with the drive to “give my posterity a path to manhood in a fatherless society.”
Younger believes his child has been hoodwinked by his ex-wife into wearing dresses. But in his refusal to even consider the possibility that his child’s desires and needs do not match his own, he cannot see that, in a way, he has abandoned his child too.
That’s a tale as old as time: the pain of one generation turning into the pain of the next. It’s the saddest story there is. And we’re all doing it. Between the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018 and the Robb Elementary School shooting in 2022, Texas engaged in an exhausting, degrading debate about how to save our kids: how to make them love their country, how to make them love the right way. And all the while we were readying to hand them a wearying, warming, troubled world. May God help the young. But let’s hope he has some time for us too.