NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A former student killed three children and three adults at a Christian elementary school in Nashville on Monday, armed with two “assault-style” weapons and a handgun after elaborately planning the massacre by drawing out a detailed map and conducting surveillance of the building, police said.
The massacre at The Covenant School just south of downtown Nashville was the latest in a series of mass shootings in a country that has grown increasingly unnerved by bloodshed in schools.
The victims included three 9-year-old children, the school’s top administrator, a substitute teacher and a custodian. Amid the chaos a familiar ritual played out: Panicked parents rushed to the school to see if their children were safe and tearfully hugged their kids, and a stunned community planned vigils for the victims.
The attack at the school — which has about 200 students from preschool through sixth grade, as well as roughly 50 staff members — comes as communities around the nation are reeling from a spate of school violence, including the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, last year; a first-grader who shot his teacher in Newport News; and a shooting last week in Denver that wounded two administrators.
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“I was literally moved to tears to see this and the kids as they were being ushered out of the building,” Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake said Monday during one of several news conferences.
Police gave unclear information on the gender of the shooter, who was fatally shot by police. For hours, police identified the shooter as a 28-year-old woman and eventually identified the person as Audrey Hale. Then at a late afternoon news conference, the police chief said Hale was transgender. After the news conference, police spokesperson Don Aaron declined to elaborate on how Hale currently identified.
‘We have a manifesto’
Drake did not give a specific motive when asked by reporters, but gave chilling examples of the shooter’s prior planning for the targeted attack.
“We have a manifesto, we have some writings that we’re going over that pertain to this date, the actual incident,” he said. “We have a map drawn out of how this was all going to take place.”
The shooter was armed with two “assault-style” weapons as well as a handgun, authorities said. At least two of them were believed to have been obtained legally in the Nashville area, according to the chief.
The victims were identified as Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all 9 years old; and adults Cynthia Peak, 61; Katherine Koonce, 60; and Mike Hill, 61.
The website of the Presbyterian school, founded in 2001, lists a Katherine Koonce as the head of the school. Her LinkedIn profile says she has led the school since July 2016. Peak was a substitute teacher, and Hill was a custodian, according to investigators.
Students held hands as they walked to school buses, which drove them to a nearby church to be reunited with their parents.
Rachel Dibble, who was at the church as families found their children, described the scene as everyone being in “complete shock.”
“People were involuntarily trembling,” said Dibble, whose children attend a different private school in Nashville. “The children ... started their morning in their cute little uniforms, they probably had some Froot Loops and now their whole lives changed today.”
The Covenant School was founded as a ministry of Covenant Presbyterian Church. Located in the affluent Green Hills neighborhood, it’s situated close to the city’s top universities and home to the famed Bluebird Café — a beloved spot for musicians and songwriters.
President Joe Biden, speaking at an unrelated event at the White House on Monday, called the shooting a “family’s worst nightmare” and implored Congress again to pass a ban on certain semi-automatic weapons.
“It’s ripping at the soul of this nation, ripping at the very soul of this nation,” Biden said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., posted on social media on Monday: “Devastated to see another mass shooting take lives at an elementary school. We absolutely must take further action to address the gun violence crisis and keep our kids safe.”
Monday’s tragedy unfolded over roughly 14 minutes. Police received the initial call about an active shooter at 10:13 a.m.
Officers began clearing the first story of the school when they heard gunshots coming from the second level, said Aaron, the police spokesperson, during a news briefing.
Two officers from a five-member team opened fire in response, fatally shooting the suspect at 10:27 a.m., Aaron said. One officer had a hand wound from cut glass.
Aaron said there were no police officers present or assigned to the school at the time of the shooting because it is a church-run school.
Jozen Reodica heard the police sirens and firetrucks blaring from outside her office building nearby. As her building was placed under lockdown, she took out her phone and recorded the chaos.
“I thought I would just see this on TV,” she said. “And right now, it’s real.”
Tennessee state senators met for about 12 minutes on Monday after agreeing to delay taking up any bills due to the shooting. The session started off with an emotional prayer from the guest pastor.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I wrote down a prayer today and I quickly realized that I cannot,” said Pastor Russell Hall, his voice trembling. “I stand before you today heartbroken.”
Nashville has seen its share of mass violence in recent years, including a Christmas Day 2020 attack where a recreational vehicle was intentionally detonated in the heart of Music City’s historic downtown, killing the bomber, injuring three others and forcing more than 60 businesses to close.
The killings come nearly three months after Abby Zwerner was shot in the chest and hand while teaching a class at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News. A 6-year-old boy had fired his mother’s gun, which police said was legally purchased.