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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Nashville in anguish as a sanctuary for children is breached by gun violence

A photo provided by the Metro Nashville Police Department shows investigators at the scene of a shooting at a private Christian school on Monday morning, March 27, 2023. Three children and two adults were killed in the shooting at the Covenant School, police said.

By Emily Cochrane, Eliza Fawcett, Jesús Jiménez and Rick Rojas

In a stately stone building on a hill, the Covenant School was a private academy designed as an escape from the bustle of Nashville and a haven where students could learn and grow, with a curriculum that reflected the Christian values of the families who sent their children there.

Katherine Koonce, the head of the school, had a zeal for learning and saw in students potential they did not see in themselves. “You’ve got it,” she would tell a struggling student. Mike Hill, a custodian, found fulfillment in work that his daughter said he absolutely loved. And there were bright students like 9-year-old Evelyn Dieckhaus, “a light for her family,” her pastor said.

That carefully built sense of security was punctured Monday when an armed assailant breached the campus, opening fire at random students and staff members. The community surrounding the Covenant School was now wrestling with a horrifying reality: Koonce, Hill and Evelyn were all dead, as were two other 9-year-old students and a substitute teacher.

“Our hearts are completely broken,” Evelyn’s family said in a short statement released Tuesday. “We cannot believe this has happened.”

As investigators try to piece together a motive for the attack, authorities praised the actions of the Nashville police officers who rushed into the school, saying they moved swiftly in pursuing and fatally shooting the assailant.

Authorities said Tuesday that the 28-year-old perpetrator 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 Metropolitan Nashville Police Department said that the assailant’s parents had felt that their child “should not own weapons” and believed that their child did not.

Tennessee does not have what is known as a red flag law that would allow authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from those found to be a danger to themselves or others, and the Republican-controlled state legislature has steadily loosened restrictions on owning guns.

Still, Drake said that if police had known that the perpetrator was suicidal or intended to hurt others, “then we would have tried to get those weapons.”

Even with the uncertainty over what motivated the attack, the magnitude of the loss was clear as relatives, friends and people who knew the victims expressed their grief.

The other children who were killed were identified as William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs, whose father is the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, the church connected to the school. Cynthia Peak, 61, was the substitute teacher killed.

Hannah Williams, who knows the Scruggs family, struggled to wrap her head around the trauma that those closest to the victims were now enduring.

“This family did not deserve this,” Williams wrote on a post on Facebook. “No family does. They deserve to wake up from this nightmare with Hallie by their side.”

In a video statement Tuesday evening, Gov. Bill Lee said that Peak was a close friend of his wife, Maria. “Cindy was supposed to come over to have 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’re enduring a very difficult moment,” Lee said. “Everyone is hurting, everyone.”

Nashville has weathered turbulence and heartache in recent years. There were floods and a deadly tornado. In 2020, a man consumed by bizarre conspiracy theories detonated a van filled with explosives on Christmas morning, killing himself and severely damaging a swath of downtown.

But this was different, as it kindled in the city a level of terror that other communities had faced amid recurring mass shootings but Nashville had not. In a post on Twitter not long after the shooting, Mayor John Cooper said, “Nashville joined the dreaded, long list of communities to experience a school shooting.”

The shooting has reverberated beyond Nashville, too, stoking fury and frustration and invigorating once again the country’s divisions over violence and access to guns. President Joe Biden called for a ban on assault rifles, as he has done after other recent mass shootings — a repetition he acknowledged with a sense of exasperation Tuesday. “I can’t do anything except plead with the Congress to act reasonably,” he said.

In Dallas, as worshippers gathered Tuesday at Park Cities Presbyterian Church, the pain was much more personal. Chad Scruggs, the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church and Hallie’s father, had been the pastor there before moving to Nashville.

“The reality is, this event in Nashville is not merely an event for one school or one church or city,” said Paul Goebel, an associate pastor at Park Cities Presbyterian. “It touches our church, our community deeply, but it also affects and touches our whole nation.”

The Covenant School, which was founded in 2001 as a ministry of the Covenant Presbyterian Church, has about 200 students attending its campus in an affluent area of Nashville, where streets overwhelmed by the city’s rush of development in recent years give way to tree-covered hills.

It is part of a network of conservative evangelical churches and private schools in Nashville that is tight-knit, even across denominational lines. Some families attended church at one place and school in another.

Palmer Williams, whose older son went to the Covenant School for his first several years of school, said she took her children out of the school only because she was involved in founding another school with a similar approach. “We wanted more schools like Covenant,” she said.

Koonce, the head of the school since 2016, had previously worked at Christ Presbyterian Academy, a private school just 5 miles away. There, she nurtured a passion for working with students who had learning disabilities.

“She has always been a woman who is deeply passionate about kids having a love of learning,” said David Thomas, a longtime friend of Koonce’s and a director of family counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries in Nashville.

She tutored Joseph Fisher in math years ago. He’s 34 now but still remembers the way she encouraged him. “She just believed that I have more to give — and I did,” he said. When he learned that she had been killed, Fisher, now a truck driver, said that he parked and walked up a mountainside, stunned.

Hill, a father of seven and grandfather of 14, liked to cook and spend time with family, his family said in a statement. He was “beloved by the 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 Koonce was invested in building a nurturing environment for 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 just such a sweet interaction with those kids,” said Dr. Britney Grayson, the visiting doctor, a pediatric surgeon from Kenya. “Everything was normal about our day. It went exactly like we thought it would — better than expected.”

She left shortly before the shooting, stirring conflicting feelings: She knew she avoided witnessing the shooting, but she wondered if she could have been in a position to help.

Grayson said she had operated on children with gunshot wounds before, including one child who was injured in a school shooting in the United States. “It’s like, ‘Why wasn’t I still there?’” she said. “And in the very next breath, you think, ‘Well, I might be dead, too.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to process those conflicting thoughts.”

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, gathering spontaneously to tie ribbons to a chain-link fence. Her son knew William Kinney through a baseball league. The children were running the bases — “grieving the way kids do,” Williams said, “which is sadness but also just being kids.”

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