NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The suspect in a Nashville school shooting on Monday had drawn a detailed map of the school, including potential entry points, and conducted surveillance before killing three students and three adults in the latest in a series of mass shootings in a country growing increasingly unnerved by bloodshed in schools.
The suspect, who was killed by police, is believed to be a former student at The Covenant School in Nashville, where the shooting took place.
The shooter was armed with two “assault-style” weapons — a rifle and a pistol — as well as a handgun, authorities said. At least two of them were believed to have been obtained legally in the Nashville area.
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.
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The website of The Covenant School, a 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.
Police gave unclear information on the gender of the shooter. 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 press conference, the police chief said that Hale was transgender. After the news conference, police spokesperson Don Aaron declined to elaborate on how Hale currently identified.
The attack at The Covenant 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 Virginia; and a shooting last week in Denver that wounded two administrators.
“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.
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 Covenant School was founded as a ministry of Covenant Presbyterian Church. The affluent Green Hills neighborhood just south of downtown Nashville, where the Covenant School is located, is home to the famed Bluebird Café – a beloved spot for musicians and song writers.
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.
Before Monday’s violence in Nashville, there had been seven mass killings at K-12 schools since 2006 in which four or more people were killed within a 24-hour period, according to a database maintained by The Associated Press and USA Today in partnership with Northeastern University. In all of them, the shooters were males.
The database does not include school shootings in which fewer than four people were killed, which have become far more common in recent years. Just last week alone, for example, school shootings happened in Denver and the Dallas-area within two days of each other.
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, Aaron said 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.
Other students walked to safety Monday, holding hands as they left their school surrounded by police cars, 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.”
Dr. Shamendar Talwar, a social psychologist from the United Kingdom who is working on an unrelated mental health project in Nashville, raced to the church as soon as he heard news of the shooting to offer help. He said he was one of several chaplains, psychologists, life coaches and clergy inside supporting the families.
“All you can show is that the human spirit that basically that we are all here together … and hold their hand more than anything else,” he said.
Jozen Reodica heard the police sirens and fire trucks 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.”
From her office nearby, Kelly Stooksberry could see parents rushing to park their cars on the side of the road before sprinting to locate their children. She saw one woman fall to her knees and grab her chest.
“It was gut-wrenching,” she said.
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.
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, with his voice trembling. "I stand before you today heartbroken.”
A look at some of America's deadliest school shootings
Until the massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, the number of dead in U.S. school shootings tended to be in the single digits. Since then, the number of shootings that included schools and killed 10 or more people has mounted. The most recent two were both in Texas. In May 2022, an 18-year-old attacker killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In May 2018, a 17-year-old killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School near Houston. Most of the victims were students.