Nashville school shooting victims remember community in anguish
NASHVILLE — In a stately stone building on a hill, the Covenant School was a private academy designed as an escape from the hustle and bustle of Nashville and a haven where students could learn and grow, with a curriculum that reflected the Christian values of families who sent their children there.
Katherine Koonce, the school principal, had a zeal for learning and saw potential in the students that they did not see in themselves. “You get it,” she would say to a struggling student. Mike Hill, a caretaker, thrived on the job his daughter said he absolutely loved. And there were bright students like 9-year-old Evelyn Dieckhaus, “a light to her family,” her pastor said.
That carefully constructed sense of security was shattered on Monday when an armed assailant entered campus, opening fire on random students and staff. The community surrounding the Covenant School was now grappling with a horrifying reality: Dr. Koonce, Mr. Hill and Evelyn were all dead, as were two other 9-year-old students and a substitute teacher who had been shot and killed during the incident. ‘offensive.
“Our hearts are completely broken,” Evelyn’s family said in a short statement released Tuesday. “We can’t believe this happened.”
As investigators try to piece together the motive for the attack, authorities have praised the actions of Nashville police officers who rushed into the school, saying they acted quickly to pursue and kill the attacker.
Authorities said on Tuesday the 28-year-old attacker had legally purchased seven firearms recently – including the three used in the shooting – and was being treated by a doctor for an emotional disorder. Chief John Drake of the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department said the perpetrator’s parents felt their child “shouldn’t own guns” and believed their child didn’t.
Tennessee does not have what is called a red flag law that would allow authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from those who would be in danger to themselves or others, and the state legislature controlled by Republicans has steadily eased restrictions on gun ownership.
Still, Chief Drake said if the police had known the assailant was suicidal or intended to harm other people, “then we would have tried to get those guns.”
Even with the uncertainty over what prompted the attack, the scale of the loss was clear as relatives, friends and people who knew the victims expressed their grief.
The other children who were killed have been identified as William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs, whose father is the pastor of the Covenant Presbyterian Church, the church linked to the school. Cynthia Peak, 61, was the substitute teacher killed.
Hannah Williams, who knows the Scruggs family, struggled to understand the trauma those closest to the victims were now going through.
“This family didn’t deserve this,” Ms Williams wrote in a Facebook post. “No family does. They deserve to wake up from this nightmare with Hallie by their side.
In a video statement on Tuesday evening, Governor Bill Lee said Ms Peak was a close friend of his wife, Maria. “Cindy was supposed to come to dinner with Maria last night,” he said. He described the anguish caused by the shooting – “the emptiness, the lack of understanding, the desperate desire for answers, the desperate need for hope”, he said.
“We are going through a very difficult time,” Mr Lee said. “Everyone is suffering, everyone.”
Nashville has weathered turbulence and heartache in recent years. There was flooding and a deadly tornado. In 2020, a man plagued by strange conspiracy theories blew up an explosive-filled van on Christmas morning, killing himself and severely damaging part of downtown.
But it was different, because it sparked a level of terror in the city that other communities had faced amid recurring mass shootings, but not in Nashville. In a post on Twitter shortly after the shooting, Mayor John Cooper said, “Nashville has joined the long and dreaded list of communities to experience a school shooting.”
The shooting also reverberated beyond Nashville, stoking fury and frustration and once again invigorating the nation’s divisions over violence and access to guns. President Biden has called for a ban on assault rifles, as he has done after other recent mass shootings – a repeat he acknowledged with a sense of exasperation on Tuesday. “I can’t do anything but implore Congress to act reasonably,” he said.
In Dallas, as worshipers gathered at Park Cities Presbyterian Church on Tuesday, the pain was much more personal. Chad Scruggs, the pastor of the Covenant Presbyterian Church and Hallie’s father, had pastored there before moving to Nashville.
“The reality is that this event in Nashville is not just an event for a school or a church or a city,” said Paul Goebel, associate pastor at Park Cities Presbyterian. “It deeply affects our church, our community, but it also affects and affects our entire nation.”
Mr. Scruggs, who left that congregation in 2018, returned to Dallas in February to preach, highlighting Hallie and her three siblings seated in the pews. “Their story, in many ways, started here,” he said at the time.
Mark Davis, the current pastor of Park Cities Presbyterian, said he spoke to Mr. Scruggs on Monday afternoon; in that conversation, Mr Scruggs acknowledged that “he is in shock”. The congregation also had ties to Mrs Peak, the substitute teacher who was killed. His sister loved it there. Some who stood to pray for the victims at Tuesday’s vigil referred to Ms Peak as ‘Aunt Cindy’.
“We are here because our hearts are broken,” Pastor Davis told the congregation. “We are here because we have questions.
The Covenant School, which was founded in 2001 as a ministry of the Covenant Presbyterian Church, has about 200 students who attend its campus in an affluent neighborhood of Nashville, where streets overwhelmed by the city’s development rush in recent years give way to tree covered hills.
He is part of a network of conservative evangelical churches and private schools in Nashville that is tightly knit even across denominational lines. Some families attended church in one place and school in another. Palmer Williams, whose eldest son attended Covenant School during his early school years, said she pulled her children out of school only because she was involved in founding another school with a similar approach. “We wanted more schools like Covenant,” she said.
Dr Koonce, principal of the school since 2016, previously worked at Christ Presbyterian Academy, a private school just five miles away. There, she developed a passion for working with students who had learning disabilities.
“She has always been a woman deeply passionate about children who love to learn,” said David Thomas, a longtime friend of Dr. Koonce and director of family counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries in Nashville.
She taught math to Joseph Fisher years ago. He is 34 now but still remembers how she encouraged him. “She just believed I had more to give — and I did,” he said. When he learned she had been killed, Mr Fisher, now a lorry driver, said he parked and drove up the side of a mountain in amazement.
Mr Hill, a father of seven and grandfather of 14, enjoyed cooking and spending time with his family, his family said in a statement. He was “loved by faculty and students who filled him with joy for 14 years,” the statement said.
The Covenant School had a student-teacher ratio of 8 to 1, and Dr. Koonce was invested in creating a nurturing environment for the students.
On the morning of the shooting, students sang “Amazing Grace” in the chapel and practiced saying “jambo” – a traditional Swahili greeting – with a missionary doctor who was visiting the school.
“It was such a sweet interaction with these kids,” said visiting physician Dr Britney Grayson, a pediatric surgeon from Kenya. “Everything was normal in our day. It went exactly as we thought: better than expected.
She left shortly before the shooting, arousing mixed feelings: she knew she was avoiding witnessing the shooting, but wondered if she might have been able to help.
Dr Grayson said she had previously operated on children with gunshot wounds, including a child injured in a school shooting in the United States. “It’s like, ‘Why wasn’t I here yet?'” she said. “And in the next breath, you think, ‘Well, I could be dead too.’ I don’t know if I will ever be able to process these conflicting thoughts.
The shooting also sparked fears about the lasting consequences it would have for children in the community, especially relatives of the victims.
“This is a family that has touched more people than they will ever know,” Hannah Williams wrote in a Facebook post about the Scruggs family. “Hallie’s Brothers: John Randall, Charlie and Carter lost their one and only sister at ages where this trauma will forever affect their developing brains.”
But there was also hope that the spirit of the school – the sense of closeness and warmth – would endure.
On Monday night, Palmer Williams’ family joined others at a baseball field, spontaneously gathering to tie ribbons to a chain-link fence. His son knew William Kinney in baseball league. The children ran the basics – “grieving like children do”, Ms Williams said, “which is sadness but also just being children”.
Mary Beth Gahan contributed reporting from Dallas. Ruth Graham also contributed to the report. Kirsten Noyes, Susan C. Beachy And Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.