Shooter kills 3 children, 3 adults at Nashville private church school

Police officers in uniform outside a school building, next to a tree.
Nashville police gather outside of The Covenant School on March 27. A 28-year-old armed with multiple weapons entered the private Christian school and killed three children and three adults. (Courtesy of Metro Nashville Police Department)

A person armed with multiple guns killed three children and three adults at a private Christian school in Nashville Monday morning before being fatally shot by police.

As details of the police investigation and images emerged Tuesday, school families and local leaders were still trying to piece together what happened, a task familiar to a growing number of U.S. communities that have faced the tragedy of a school shooting.

The three student victims at The Covenant School were young, all 9 years old, authorities said. One of three adult victims was Katherine Koonce, the head of school. The others were a custodian and a substitute teacher.

While school shootings in the United States have increased in the last two decades, they are rare at private schools. Sarah Wilson, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools, which represents private schools, said she believed this was the first shooting at a private school in Tennessee.

Tennessee’s efforts to improve school security have largely focused on public schools rather than private ones and generally emphasize fortifying school campuses rather than reducing the number of firearms.

Brad Goia, director of independent schools for the Nashville Area, called the shooting a “horrible tragedy.”

“It has devastated all of us because, first and foremost, we are heartbroken for Covenant,” said Goia, who is also headmaster of Montgomery Bell Academy, an elite all-boys college prep school in Nashville. “The suffering that the Covenant community is feeling also heightens the ways that all of us are vulnerable, that the unthinkable can happen anywhere.”

Nashville is perceived as a relatively safe place, Goia said, “but these events reshape our view of the world.”

The Covenant School was founded in 2001 as a ministry of Covenant Presbyterian Church. The campus sits atop a hill in an affluent part of Nashville known as Green Hills and is the educational home to some 200 students in preschool to sixth grade. Students have Bible classes and attend daily chapel services. 

The school’s motto: “shepherding hearts, empowering minds, celebrating childhood.”

Police responded to a call at 10:13 a.m. about an active shooter at the school. Identified by police as 28-year-old Nashville resident Audrey Elizabeth Hale, the shooter came to the campus armed with two rifles, a 9-millimeter pistol, and “significant” ammunition for the firearms, police said.

Police said the shooter entered the school through a side door after shooting out the glass, then proceeded to the first and second floors, firing multiple shots before being fatally shot by the police on the second floor. 

Drake said police believe the shooter fired at students at random. The student victims who were fatally shot were in several locations.

Police identified the student victims as Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney. The adults killed were Cynthia Peak and Mike Hill, both 61, and Koonce, 60, the school’s leader.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper praised the police response.

“Guns are quick, they don’t give you much time,” Cooper said. “So even in a remarkably fast response, there was not enough time. And those guns stole precious lives from us today in Nashville.”

Drake, the police chief, said, “I was hoping this day would never ever come here in this city, but we will never wait to make entry to go in and stop a threat, especially when it deals with our children.”

Children from The Covenant School arrive in school buses at Woodmont Baptist Church to be reunited with their families after Monday’s shooting. (Seth Herald / Getty Images)

Shooter was a former student at the school

Police initially described the shooter as a woman. But the shooter’s gender identity was unclear, given some conflicting statements from authorities. According to The Tennessean, police released the shooter’s birth name, and said that the person used he/him pronouns.

The shooter previously attended the school, police said, but it is unclear when or for how long. Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake said Monday afternoon that the shooter did not have a criminal history and that it was too early to describe a motive for the shooting. 

Police searched the shooter’s home and found writings and documents planning the attack, including a map and plans for entering and shooting. The notes included additional locations, but police couldn’t confirm whether any of the locations were planned targets.

The three weapons that were brought into the school were among seven that the shooter had purchased legally from five different Nashville-area gun stores, Drake said in a briefing Tuesday.

Gov. Lee’s safety bill focuses on public schools

Gov. Bill Lee, who tweeted that he was “closely monitoring” the situation and praying for the community, identified school safety as one of his top priorities during his 2023 address to Tennesseans. His proposals so far have mostly focused on beefing up security protocols at public schools. 

Recently, Lee proposed a sweeping school safety bill, requiring all K-12 public schools to keep their exterior doors locked, or risk losing escalating amounts of state funding with each violation.

Despite having one of the nation’s highest rates of gun deaths, Tennessee has enacted numerous laws under Lee’s leadership to loosen requirements for gun ownership. In 2021, he signed a law allowing most Tennesseans 21 and older to carry handguns without first clearing a background check, obtaining a permit, or getting trained on firearms safety.

This year, however, the governor’s administration has opposed several new bills from Republican lawmakers who want to loosen those regulations even further.

At the White House on Monday, President Joe Biden called the shooting “a family’s worst nightmare” and called again for a federal ban on “assault” weapons, a term that’s used to describe certain military-style semi-automatic firearms.

“We have to do more to stop gun violence; it’s ripping our communities apart — ripping the soul of this nation,” Biden said. “And we have to do more to protect our schools, so they aren’t turned into prisons.”

Shooting rattles a tight community

State Rep. Bob Freeman, a Nashville Democrat whose district includes the Covenant School, said that in a small city like Nashville, it is inevitable for many residents to have connections to Covenant’s children and families. 

Freeman said he heard Monday from one school family who found out their child was safe but knew two of the children who died. 

“And tonight, families across Nashville and our state are going to have to have some tough conversations with their children trying to explain why this has happened and to assure them that they are safe at school,” he said. 

Claire Walker, a second-grade teacher at another private Christian school nearby, felt anguish as she pushed her newborn son in a stroller past the entrance to The Covenant School, where some Nashvillians had already begun to place bouquets of flowers in memory of the victims.

“We have many good friends whose kids go here, and my heart has been with them all day,” said Walker, who had just seen the list of victims and found no names of children she recognized.

“But they’re other people’s kids,” she added quickly, “and they were just 9 years old.”

Before landing her current job, Walker had interviewed for a teaching position at The Covenant School and had even toured the school with Koonce, the headmaster who was among the adult victims. “She was sweet,” said Walker, shaking her head in disbelief.

“I’ve got a 7-week-old and a 20-month-old, and it’s terrifying to think that they’re going to be in school in a couple of years,” Walker said.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

Laura Testino covers the Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

Bureau Chief Tonyaa Weathersbee oversees Chalkbeat Tennessee’s education coverage. Contact her at tweathersbee@chalkbeat.org.

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