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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Heavily armed assailant kills six at Christian school in Nashville

By Emily Cochrane, Ben Shpigel, Michael Levenson and Jesus Jiménez New York Times

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A 28-year-old from Nashville fatally shot three children and three adults on Monday at a private Christian elementary school, officials said, leaving behind writings and detailed maps of the school and its security protocols.

In the latest episode of gun violence that has devastated American families and communities, the assailant opened fire just after 10 a.m. inside the Covenant School, in the affluent Green Hills neighborhood, where children in preschool through sixth grade had just begun their final full week of classes before Easter break.

The shooter, whom the police identified as Audrey Hale, entered the building by firing through a side door, armed with two assault-style weapons and a handgun, according to John Drake, the chief of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, and went to the second floor, firing shots before being killed by police.

There was confusion about the gender identity of the assailant in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Drake said Audrey Hale identified as transgender. Officials used “she” and “her” to refer to the shooter, but, according to a social media post and a LinkedIn profile, the shooter appeared to identify as male in recent months.

Police in Nashville identified the three children as Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, and the adults as Cynthia Peak, 61, a substitute teacher; Mike Hill, 61, a custodian; and Katherine Koonce, 60. Koonce was the head of school, according to the school website.

Drake said it was too early to discuss a possible motive for the shooting, although he confirmed that the attack was targeted. Authorities were reviewing writings, and had made contact with the shooter’s father, Drake said.

“We have a map drawn out of how this was all going to take place,” he said. “There’s right now a theory that we may be able to talk about later but it’s not confirmed, so we’ll put that out as soon as we can.”

The shooting shattered the wealthy enclave of Green Hills, a few miles south of downtown Nashville, where the small school and the stone church connected to it sit atop a hill, nestled in a residential neighborhood filled with stately homes and lush landscaping. Founded in 2001 as a ministry of the Covenant Presbyterian Church, the Covenant School bills itself as “intentionally small” with about 200 students, according to its website, and a student-to-teacher ratio of 8-1. Tuition costs around $16,000 per year.

Sirens and the buzz of helicopters pierced the still of a sunny spring morning on Monday, sending residents of the area out of their homes to wait for news about the shooting or assurances that their children at neighboring schools had been released from lockdown. A few women gathered around a livestream of the news conference, gasping and shaking their heads.

“It’s terrifying when you see parents running up the hill,” said Lisa DeBusk, 43, who lives in Green Hills. She said she had considered sending her daughter to Covenant, calling it “the sweetest, most wonderful place.”

“We’re all resilient, but we shouldn’t have to be in this,” she added. “I never would have imagined this.”

Police received a report of the shooting at 10:13 a.m. and heard gunshots on the second floor when they arrived at the school, a police spokesperson, Don Aaron, said. Officers went there, saw the assailant shooting, and two of the officers opened fire, killing the assailant at 10:27 a.m. in a “lobby-type area” on the second floor, Aaron said. The school does not have a police officer guarding it, he said.

Kendra Loney, a spokesperson for the Nashville Fire Department, said that schoolchildren and members of the school’s staff were escorted out of the building after the shooting, and that a total of 108 people had been transported to the nearby Woodmont Baptist Church.

The pupils – dressed in the school uniform of red and black polo shirts, plaid skirts and khaki shorts and pants – held hands as they walked from the buses, escorted by the police, into a conference-like room inside the church. Elsewhere in the building, parents waited to learn if their children were safe.

Rachael Anne Elrod, the Metro Nashville School Board chair, said she was inside “the worst waiting room you can imagine” as officials set about reuniting children with their parents. Some, she said, were debating how to manage the rest of the day after such a traumatic morning.

“They are mostly figuring out how they are going to talk to their children going forward about this,” Elrod said. “What is the next best step? What should they do next? Do we take them to get ice cream? Take them to the playground? Do we ask them what they saw? Do we not ask them what they saw? Do we bring them to school tomorrow? Is there school tomorrow?”

Rachel Dibble, whose children attend a different private school in Nashville, had also visited with Covenant families, some of whom she knew through youth sports.

“It has to stop,” Dibble said of school shootings. “I want a politician to sit in a church with families and 250 kids downstairs that are white as a sheet and trembling and gray and yellow and green and blue because of the shock.”

Speaking of the students, she added: “They started this morning, they had their cute little uniforms on, they probably had some Froot Loops. Their whole lives changed today.”

There is no consensus on what constitutes a mass shooting; groups define it differently, depending on the circumstances. But the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group that tracks gun violence using police reports, news coverage and other public sources, defines a mass shooting as one in which at least four people are killed or injured. As of late March, the archive has counted 130 mass shootings in the United States in 2023.

Calling the Nashville shooting “sick” and “a family’s worst nightmare,” President Joe Biden again pushed Congress on Monday to enact gun-control legislation. He has repeatedly called for such a ban on assault weapons, including during his recent visit to Monterey Park, California, where a gunman killed 11 people at a dance studio in January.

“It’s about time that we begin to make some progress,” Biden said.

Even as school shootings become more frequent, the shooting at Covenant was unusual.

Many of the highest-profile school shootings in recent years have taken place at public schools, in part because there are far more public schools in the United States: nearly 100,000, compared with about 30,000 private schools.

Shootings at elementary schools are also relatively uncommon, making up less than 20% of all incidents of gun violence on school grounds, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database. Most incidents of gun violence on school campuses, including active shooter incidents, happen at high schools.

After spending time in Woodmont Baptist, Melissa Trevathan, the owner of a counseling ministry, grieved the loss of Koonce, whom she said she had gotten to know through her work with children. Trevathan, who had come with Pippa, a therapy dog in training, to offer support, characterized Koonce “very magnetic” and strong, and recalled her passion for education, sense of humor and love for adventure.

“She would go the ultimate in protecting her kids,” Trevathan said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.