‘We need to fight harder, scream louder’: Nashville youth at school shooting vigil share their anger

First lady Jill Biden and singer Sheryl Crow stood before hundreds in Nashville as mourners held candles, prayed and shared their frustration at yet another deadly school shooting on American soil, writes Sheila Flynn

Thursday 30 March 2023 14:45 BST
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People react during a memorial vigil for the victims of the Covenant Presbyterian Church school shooting in Nashville
People react during a memorial vigil for the victims of the Covenant Presbyterian Church school shooting in Nashville (EPA)

Mother-of-two Laura Lemon choked up as she waited outside Nashville’s historic courthouse on Wednesday for the start of a candlelight vigil honouring the victims of the latest school shooting in the US.

Her six-month-old son strapped to her chest and preschooler resting in the stroller before her, the small business owner took a moment before addressing the plague of classroom gun violence cutting down children across the nation.

“It used to be, I tried not to think about it,” Ms Lemon, 37, told The Independent. “And then it hit in our backyard.”

As she spoke, hundreds of other Nashville residents were also gathering at Public Square Park, coming to pray and remember the three children and three adults shot dead on Monday at The Covenant School, about a 15-minute drive away in the upmarket section of Green Hills. A 28-year-old former student, Audrey Hale, shot through the school’s doors before killing students Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs, all nine; as well as head of school Katherine Koonce, 60, substitute teacher Cindy Peak, 61 and custodian Mike Hill, 61.

The family of Mr Hill – a father of eight – was present alongside faith and legislative leaders at Wednesday’s vigil, including first lady Dr Jill Biden, who did not offer public remarks to the crowd of several hundred. Sheryl Crow and other musicians performed while mourners held candles and each other.

Students, families and Nashville residents gathered to mourn and pray on Wednesday at Nashville’s Public Square Park following the Monday shooting at The Covenant School which left three children and three adults dead
Students, families and Nashville residents gathered to mourn and pray on Wednesday at Nashville’s Public Square Park following the Monday shooting at The Covenant School which left three children and three adults dead (Sheila Flynn)

“I’ve been hoping that gun laws would change and government would change before I’d ever have to talk to my daughter about this sort of stuff,” Ms Lemon said. “But I don’t feel like that’s going to be happening.”

She said parents and residents were “just sick of hardly anything being done... this is why you put elected officials in place. They’re supposed to be the people that solve these sort of problems.”

Ms Lemon is worried for her children going to school, but there were plenty of vigil attendees who actively worry, every day, about themselves.

Fifteen-year-old Willis Egan, holding six flowers picked from his mother’s garden in honour of each victim, stood in Public Square Park with his older sister as the crowd began to thin on Wednesday evening. Following the prayers, pledges of strength and thanks to first responders, the dignitaries filed back towards the building.

But Justin Jones, state representative for District 52, grabbed the microphone to point out that the governor had not been in attendance, urging people to gather for a morning demonstration.

There was an undeniable bubbling anger among Willis and the other young people present.

“Seeing some people, I don’t know, hearing loud sounds, some of my first thoughts are, ‘Oh, well... this is it’,” Willis told The Independent. “The fear is always there.”

His 23-year-old sister emphasised the need for more thorough checks and gun controls to remove that fear for teens like Mr Egan and their other sibling, 18, also still in high school.

“We need to do what we can on the legal front to keep these kinds of people from accessing firearms legally, because that's the first step in the right direction,” El Egan said of shooters such as Audrey Hale, who was killed by police within 15 minutes of the start of the attack. “And there needs to be rigorous background checks and mental health evaluations.

Willis Egan, 15, holds flowers that he brought to the vigil with his older sister, El, 23 – one flower for each victim killed on Monday, picked from their mother’s garden
Willis Egan, 15, holds flowers that he brought to the vigil with his older sister, El, 23 – one flower for each victim killed on Monday, picked from their mother’s garden (Sheila Flynn)

“I know plenty of people that own guns that have no business owning guns whatsoever, between their criminal history, their mental health, their trauma background, whatever it is, their history of suicide attempts, history of violence towards other people... but they're able to legally access firearms, no questions asked,” she said. “And it's horrifying.”

Three university students at the vigil were equally adamant about the need for gun reform – and bolstered by the energy and enthusiasm for reform amongst their contemporaries.

“I just wish that people in power realised how upsetting this is for people our age, and how scary it is, and did something actually to change instead of just sending condolences,” said Chloe Berg, an 18-year-old student at Vanderbilt University.

Following Monday’s shooting, she said, “you can only hope that there would be action”.

“When you see that they’re nine years old, you can’t help but feel like your heart just breaks for their families,” she said of the Covenant victims. “And I think after something like this, people are just so pissed off... I think that there’s a real opportunity here to make a lot of change. And I think at a school like Vandy, where people are really socially active as well, I think that the students can kind of rise up around this, unite in anger, and just hopefully make some action out of that.

“I don’t know directly what we can do, but I’m hoping that Nashville can have some power in this, and this can be the one that will turn it all around,” Ms Berg said. “But you can only hope.”

Her friend, fellow Vanderbilt student Kathleen Praino, said the current campus vibe was “a lot of anger, honestly”.

“It’s very frustrating... to be here and have the legislation, the people in power that maybe don’t want to make change in the same way that a lot of people, the younger generations, the people that our school, really do. It’s frustrating. It makes us angry.”

Vanderbilt University students (l-r) Kathleen Praino, Chloe Berg and Sophia Pieri hold candles at the Wednesday vigil, also attended by first lady Dr Jill Biden
Vanderbilt University students (l-r) Kathleen Praino, Chloe Berg and Sophia Pieri hold candles at the Wednesday vigil, also attended by first lady Dr Jill Biden (Sheila Flynn)

“We need to fight harder and scream louder, march harder,” said Ms Egan, who was hoping to lay the flowers with her brother at a memorial at the school if they couldn’t find an appropriate place after the vigil.

“We can’t give up on this fight. We have to fight like our lives depend on it, because they do – and the lives of our kids. And our kids are our lifeline. They’re our future. And we have to fight accordingly.

“People think, ‘Oh, my voice doesn’t matter, because I’m just one person.’ But then you add all of those people with that mindset together, and it’s millions of people. So it’s millions of people being silent, not doing anything, not speaking up, not marching, not protesting. And so everything just remains the same. And I feel like there needs to be serious pushback on our end, on the civilian end, in order for our voices to be heard.”

The frustration and despondency of Ms Lemon was more muted; she’d already had to steel herself earlier on Wednesday to send her three-and-a-half-year-old back to daycare for the first time since the shooting. On Monday, when she’d received a text from a friend that there’d been a school shooting, she got instinctively into the car and immediately brought her daughter home.

Sending her out again on Wednesday morning was not easy. But by the end of the afternoon, Ms Lemon felt that bringing her two children to the downtown vigil was something that she should do, for the community and for her own family.

“I just want them to see that 99.99 per cent of the world is good people,” she told The Independent. “To see the policemen here and the firemen and the community gather... I thought was just important.”

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