‘The sum of all fears’: Nashville and its religious schools grieve – and worry – after Monday massacre

Religious, musical and wider communities unite in Nashville after a 28-year-old opened fire at one of the city’s many parochial schools, killing three students and three staff members, writes Sheila Flynn in Nashville

Wednesday 29 March 2023 18:27 BST
People pay their respects at a makeshift memorial for victims at the Covenant School building at the Covenant Presbyterian Church
People pay their respects at a makeshift memorial for victims at the Covenant School building at the Covenant Presbyterian Church (AFP via Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

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Nashville’s airwaves were thick with emotion on Tuesday as the famed Music City struggled to come to terms with a school shooting that left three nine-year-olds and three adults dead a day earlier.

Mourners were placing flowers and cards at makeshift memorials near the Covenant School, where the shooting occurred, while religious leaders planned prayer vigils.

But at local radio station WNXP, afternoon host Emily Young was playing a range of songs that ran the emotional gamut. The 30-year-old Nashville native signed off with an “in-your-face, agitated” post-punk anthem as she urged listeners to process the tragedy in any way they could.

“You can grieve in a lot of different ways... my emotions have gone everywhere from shock to devastated to just hurt to crying to anger,” said Ms Young, who is just two years older than 28-year-old shooter Audrey Hale and attended a similar parochial school in the Tennessee city.

“And I guess, at the end of this, I was almost... pissed off that this is what we have to do right now,” she told The Independent. “This is what we have to talk about, and this is how we have to address this. It’s frustrating. It makes me feel angry, and I know there’s a lot of people out there that are angry, and I think that’s a valid emotion to have as a response to this.”

Ivy Huesmann hugs Metro Nashville police officer Angeline Comilla before visiting the makeshift memorial at the entrance to the Covenant School
Ivy Huesmann hugs Metro Nashville police officer Angeline Comilla before visiting the makeshift memorial at the entrance to the Covenant School (The Tennessean via AP)

The assailant, who was killed by police less than 15 minutes after beginning the attack, is believed to have at one point attended the school, which is on the same grounds as the Covenant Presbyterian Church.

The pastor’s daughter, Hallie Scruggs, was among the victims, along with fellow students Evelyn Dieckhaus and William Kinney. Janitor Mike Hill, 61, head of school Katherine Koonce, 60 and substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61 were also killed after Hale shot through the doors and opened fire, armed with three guns that had been purchased legally.

“I have my son here with me now who is in high school, and he only has two years left – but then it’s terrifying, like what can happen in those two years? Are we ever safe enough? What measures are they taking?” said mother of two Terry Naylor as she gathered for a prayer vigil at the clocktower in Mt Juliet at sunset on Tuesday.

“He goes to a school called Green Hill High School, and this shooting was in Green Hills – and my heart dropped for a second,” she told The Independent. “And then, for me to have the privilege of knowing that my kid was okay, it hurt. It touched my heart.”

She said real action was needed to prevent these ongoing school massacres.

Terry Naylor and her son, Alden, 15, attended a Tuesday night vigil for the victims of the fatal shooting on Monday at Nashville's Covenant School
Terry Naylor and her son, Alden, 15, attended a Tuesday night vigil for the victims of the fatal shooting on Monday at Nashville's Covenant School (Sheila Flynn)

“I think we need more gun legislation, also more mental health support,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of either one of those. And when you are in trouble mentally, and you can’t get to a mental health specialist easily or cheaply, but you can come across a gun within two seconds... it’s scary.”

Her son, 15-year-old Alden Seeley, said he worries while at school an armed attacker “could just come in any time”.

Ms Naylor, 42, lamented the feeling of security that had existed during her school days, a long bagpiper playing behind her as flags waved at half mast.

“We had tornado drills; we didn’t have active shooter drills,” she said. “And to know that that’s something that five-year-olds face, that they actually trained for this, to know that that’s a possibility, it’s scary.”

It’s a possibility that teachers face every day; one 58-year-old educator who works just eight miles from the Covenant School echoed Ms Naylor’s wish for vigilance and action.

“There’s just a sense of sadness and somberness,” she said. “And I think there’s a concern for all of our school and all of our kids, and it’s finally coming out that [the shooter] did have some mental illness, and I think there’s a real need for the help that these people need so that these things don’t keep happening.”

Dan Montgomery, who owns a music store down the street from the Covenant School, said many local schools in the area had been fearing such a tragedy
Dan Montgomery, who owns a music store down the street from the Covenant School, said many local schools in the area had been fearing such a tragedy (Sheila Flynn)

“There’s so much more to teaching than there ever has been. Obviously this person was hurting for a very long time, and we have to be on the lookout for these kinds of signs and symptoms,” she said.

A public school teacher, she articulated the feelings of many in a city dotted with churches and religious buildings on what seems like every block.

The site of Monday’s shooting was “the least likely place you would have thought – in a Christian, private school,” she said. “It can happen anywhere.”

Music store owner Dan Montgomery, whose business is located just down the street from the Covenant School, said the numerous religious schools in the area had been petrified of such an event; he’s spent years working with schools and parents, providing instruments and lessons.

“With a lot of schools, and I’ve been watching them lock down for the last 10 years, this was the sum of all fears,” he told The Independent, less than 36 hours after he watched the city’s law enforcement descend upon the street.

“These schools that I deal with, all these little schools and private... I’ve noticed the anxiety level with the folks in the office.”

“They’re going to need a big fence and a guard, a booth and a sentry,” he said. “That’s where we’re headed.”

“I feel in shock,” he said, but “not overly surprised”.

“Numbed is a good word for it,” he said. “It’s so close. You don’t want to admit that it happened right down the street.”

Ms Young, at the radio station, said she felt glad to be allowed the freedom to vent her frustrations on air; WNXP is owned by Nashville Public Radio.

“I do feel that we have this platform, and it is our responsibility to use it to be supportive and to... acknowledge it,” she said.

This is impacting everyone, especially in this town, and it can’t be ignored. And I didn’t think I could ignore it.”

In addition to her music choices, her words summed up the emotions of many in a town known for gigs and good times.

“Honestly, I’m kind of pissed off,” she told The Independent. “And mad that this is a thing that continues to happen.”

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