Family members of the Uvalde victims are questioning how the school district's communications director won an award for her work — which they said was part of the failed response by local officials to the deadly shooting.
Anne Marie Espinoza, director of communications and marketing for Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, was the face of the district on May 24, 2022, and in the aftermath of the Robb Elementary School shooting. On Tuesday, she won the Most Valuable Member award at the Texas School Public Relations Association's annual conference.
"I am honored and humbled to receive the TSPRA 2023 Most Valuable Member Award at the Annual Conference," Espinoza tweeted. "I am overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciation. Thank you #TSPRA23 #MostValuableMember."
She also spoke on crisis communications and "lessons learned" from the shooting at a lunchtime event at the conference.
TSPRA also did not return our emails and calls requesting comment, but in an email, Espinoza said the Most Valuable Member award is for "long-standing service to school communications" and that her affiliation with TSPRA includes a decade of service, including leadership.
"The association shared the following message when presenting the award: Mrs. Espinoza has been both the student and the teacher, willing to learn, teach and grow. She has provided fellowship and support to colleagues. Through service and leadership, this member has served our organization at both the regional, state, and national level," Espinoza wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News.
"I would like to extend my appreciation to the TSPRA Professional Awards Committee, which conducted the nominations and final awards. In addition, I am grateful to the TSPRA Conference Planning Committee for organizing a valuable opportunity for networking, learning, and collaboration."
But her tweet about the award was met with dozens of quote tweets, calling her win "embarrassing." Some family members of the victims, including Gloria Cazares, whose 9-year-old daughter Jackie was killed, tweeted the email Espinoza sent to Uvalde parents on May 24 when 19 kids and two teachers were killed. In the email, which Cazares said Espinoza sent at 11:49 a.m., she wrote that all of UCISD campuses were under lockdown because of gunshots in the area, but students and staff were safe.
"The students and staff are safe in the buildings," the email from Espinoza read. "The buildings are secure in a Lockdown Status. Your cooperation is needed at this time by not visiting the campus. As soon as the Lockdown Status is lifted you will be notified."
At that time, the shooter was inside the school. It would take law enforcement 77 minutes to enter the unlocked classroom to confront him. Meanwhile outside, bystanders questioned why the more than 400 officers at the scene weren't doing more; Cazares said she could hear gunshots coming from inside the school when she received the email from Espinoza.
Jazmin Cazares, Jackie's sister, tweeted that Espinoza's email was the "only thing" giving her hope that the fourth-grader was alive.
"that post was the only thing that gave me hope that my sister Jackie was alive," she tweeted. "reading it over and over while i was sitting on the floor in a closet during lockdown at my school." Brett Cross, whose 10-year-old son Uziyah Garcia died during the mass shooting, was also critical of Espinoza's award.
The police response to the shooting has been called an "abject failure," and the district has also come under scrutiny on several occasions for its response to the media and parents. In 2022, UCISD hired officer Crimson Elizondo and then fired her in October after CNN uncovered that while working for the Texas Department of Public Safety, she was one of the first officers on the scene at Robb Elementary School. Police body camera footage shows her saying, “If my son had been in there, I would not have been outside. I promise you that.”
Last week, a Uvalde parent whose son survived the shooting was banned from any UCISD property after he questioned the hiring of a new district police officer, according to Uvalde Leader-News.
In September, Cross camped outside UCISD's administration office to demand that the UCISD police officers on scene May 24 were suspended while they were under investigation for their roles that day. The school district put up fences to keep others from joining Cross. After 10 days, UCISD suspended its police officers.