Today@Sam Article

Program Deploys To Uvalde To Provide Support

July 6, 2022
SHSU Media Contact: Campbell Atkins

LEMIT Pic 1Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas was the site of yet another tragedy involving gun violence that rocked the nation’s foundation at the end of May. The horrific incident left 21 dead, including 19 students and two educators, and many injured.

While the average American scratches their head for solutions or offers thoughts and prayers, the mental toll this massacre leaves on all surviving individuals involved, as well as the community they inhabit, will remain forever immeasurable. No one is more cognizant of this somber fact than Rita Villarreal-Watkins, executive director of the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT) in Sam Houston State University’s College of Criminal Justice (COCJ), who met with first responders firsthand when the smoke cleared.

“The word I would use to describe Uvalde right now is heartbroken,” Villarreal-Watkins said. “The loss of life, the loss of children, the loss of adults, the loss of that smalltown community feel and the loss of innocence, you can feel that intensity in the air and you can see it in their faces.”

Villarreal-Watkins was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde on behalf of the state of Texas in order to personally meet with first responders involved in the tragedy, including police officers and other emergency personnel. She was one of the most desired mental health professionals in the program due to her vast industry knowledge and experience as well as her Hispanic background and bilingual abilities. Over 80 percent of Uvalde is Hispanic and being able to speak with someone with a similar background was important to those involved.

For 30 years, the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas at SHSU has been committed to providing exceptional education, professional development, research and services to the law enforcement community to inspire excellence in leadership and management for 21st Century law enforcement agencies.

“Our peers are the most essential component to our peer support team and the healing process of those first responders affected by this tragedy”, James Senegal, who serves as director of leadership development at LEMIT and oversees LEMIT’s peer support team, said. “They have all gone through their own past critical incidents and know the importance of being able to converse with and confide in trusted sources. Thus, we rely on their willingness to serve those who we know serve so selflessly and the hearts of our peers never falter.”

LEMIT personnel receive training through a Post Critical Incident Seminar (PCIS), which helps mental health professionals assist agencies with briefings after a critical incident. This unique experience made them a prime candidate to help assist in the aftermath of Uvalde’s tragedy.

“Our response to Uvalde was really based on the state reaching out to us and asking LEMIT if we have peers and mental health professionals who can come and assist with one-on-ones with, in this particular case, first responders,” said Villarreal-Watkins.

LEMIT personnel assisted in the aftermath of the Santa Fe High School shooting in May of 2018, which left eight students and two teachers dead. They believed they were deployed too fast in this situation, as the first responders were still in mission mode at the time, and it was too soon to debrief. This time, agencies such as LEMIT waited longer to deploy after the incident, which resulted in a much smoother system.

“They almost took a four-prong approach to it,” Villarreal-Watkins said. “You had the event itself, the psychological triage that occurred shortly thereafter, continual care of the people and first responders, and then the fourth prong to that is the long-term care, so that a year from now, when the anniversary comes, they will have those resources available. It felt smooth for our role and obligation there.”

Part of the tragedy’s aftermath has included criticism of law enforcement personnel from the media and outside sources who claim more should have been done in a faster manner in order to end the shooting spree. While Villarreal-Watkins stated there was little discussion of this during her interactions with officers, she did state on their behalf that she wishes people would wait until they have all the facts before jumping to judgement.

She also stated that, upon learning of her duties and interactions with first responders, Uvalde citizens would ask her how they were holding up and to tell them how much they are appreciated in their community.

“Overall, I learned that it is a very small, tight-knit community,” said Villarreal-Watkins. “They all love each other and appreciate each other. That is the support system they have within themselves. That is what is going to help them and carry them through this.”

Phillip Lyons, dean and director of COCJ at SHSU, stated he was very pleased with the state’s willingness to call on Sam Houston personnel to assist in the aftermath.  

“Our historic mission is one that broadly encompasses a need to meet the field in a variety of ways,” Lyons said. “That partly includes teaching, professional development and degree conferrals, but it also includes activated like those here as well as research to help inform best practices.”

LEMIT was one of the state’s many resources deployed to Uvalde to help assist the town in its darkest hour. While the legacy will always be heartbreak, these resources and their capabilities can assist in the tragic aftermath and potentially prevent such horrors from occurring in the future.

“When you talk about resiliency and hope, they are going to get there,” Villarreal-Watkins said. “There are people wanting and searching for that right now, there is no doubt about that, but this is all still so raw. They are looking for answers on why this happened. People ask that, but will we ever get to the why? That is the big challenge for events like this.”

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