EDINBURG, Texas – School officials in South Texas confined students to campus buildings and pondered erecting a cinder-block wall to block bullets from hunters on adjacent ranchland one day after two middle school boys were shot while trying out for the basketball team on an outdoor court.
It seemed the most immediate solution for a problem specific to rural schools. With no law in Texas prohibiting hunting on private land next to schools and high-powered rifles firing ammunition that could go more than a mile, school officials said a barrier seemed a good idea.
Harwell Middle School opened just this year on rural property northeast of Edinburg, which is about 50 miles northwest of Brownsville. Homes line the road approaching the school, but ranchlands covered with thickets of short trees and undergrowth stretch out to the west and the north.
"We were not aware that there was hunting on the west side of the school or that there were (hunting) leases on the west side until last night," school district Superintendent Rene Gutierrez said. A wall stretching along the back of Harwell Middle School and a neighboring elementary school and curving around to protect the middle school from the north are being considered, Gutierrez said.
Now, a chain link fence separates the campus from about 200 yards of open field, and there a tree line starts an expanse of thick scrub to the west.
The boys, ages 13 and 14, were in a parking lot that had been converted into a temporary basketball court behind Harwell when they were shot about 4:45 p.m. Monday. There were about 50 children there trying out for the team. One boy going for a layup was shot just under the right arm, and the other was shot in the back while awaiting his turn.
Four coaches immediately rushed children inside the building while other staff tended to the wounded students, Gutierrez said. Both boys underwent surgery and were listed in stable condition, he said.
Investigators were able to retrieve a bullet from one of the boys. Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino said they will check for a ballistics match with rifles taken from three men who were questioned.
Two of the men were shooting target practice about 800 yards, or nearly a half-mile, from where the boys were shot, Trevino said.
"Their initial statement leads us to believe that they were in the right line of trajectory," Trevino said.
The men were released around 2 a.m. Tuesday, but are still under investigation, he said.
A third man remained in custody Tuesday. He was trespassing on adjacent land and carrying an AR-15 assault rifle. Trevino said he was in the country illegally and could face trespassing charges in addition to his immigration violation. Investigators were still trying to pinpoint his location at the time of the shooting to determine whether he was in line with the victims.
Mike Cox, a spokesman for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said he was not aware of a specific law or regulation that prohibits hunting close to public buildings, such as schools or hospitals. He said it is against the law to discharge firearms within city limits or along any public road.
Trevino also said he didn't believe there was any law preventing hunting near a school.
"You're in the state of Texas and the state of Texas, like any other state in the union, has rural schools all over the country," Trevino said. "And a lot of the schools are surrounded by hunting ... Even during dove season, we get literally hundreds of calls of residents having barbecues having pellets rain upon their roof. I mean that happens every year. You've got to remember you're in rural Hidalgo County, Texas, and it is a hunting state."
However, he added, "you would seem to think also that there's some sort of personal responsibility that one has to take as a hunter or as a responsible adult."
A property owner northeast of the school had told school officials that he leased his property out to two deer hunters and that this would be the last year, Gutierrez said. That property owner advised the hunters of the school's location and told them to only shoot north, away from the campus, he said.
After speaking with school officials Tuesday morning, Esmeralda Gutierrez said she remained concerned about the safety of her son, who is in eighth grade, and other students at Harwell. Classes were held as scheduled Tuesday but with more security and counselors on campus.
Gutierrez said school officials told her that students won't be allowed outside for activities this week. Since the adjacent land is private and the hunters have permission, there's nothing school officials say they can do, she said.
"I didn't know there was hunting there. It surprised me," Gutierrez said in Spanish. "It's dangerous for the kids."
Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Austin contributed to this report.