School Climate & Safety

What the Tragedy in Nashville Reveals About School Safety

By Evie Blad & Arianna Prothero — March 28, 2023 9 min read
Families leave a reunification site in Nashville, Tenn., on March 27, 2023, after a shooting at Covenant School in Nashville.
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After three young children and three adults died in a shooting at a church-run elementary school in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, lawmakers and activists launched into familiar debates about guns and safety.

Police said a former student, whom they identified as Audrey Hale, 28, shot through a side door at The Covenant School, which shares a building with a Presbyterian church. Hale killed the three 9-year-old students, including the church pastor’s daughter, and three adults, including the head of school, in 14 minutes before police responded and shot the attacker.

“Lord, when babies die at a church school, it is time for us to move beyond thoughts and prayers,” Senate Chaplain Rear Admiral Barry Black (Ret.) prayed Tuesday before lawmakers in the U.S. Capitol opened their day of business.

Remembering the Covenant School victims

A woman and child bring flowers to lay at the entry to Covenant School which has becomes a memorial for shooting victims, Tuesday, March 28, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
A woman and child bring flowers on March 28, 2023, to the entry to The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn., where six people were killed in a mass shooting the day before.
John Amis/AP

As lawmakers debated gun laws and President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass a new assault weapons ban, educators and parents expressed pain and confusion about the loss of life in a place that is supposed to be safe.

What was unusual about the Nashville shooting? What did it have in common with other attacks? And how can those factors inform school safety discussions?

Here’s what we know.

The shooter didn’t ‘just snap’

What we know: After searching Hale’s home and a Honda Fit left at the crime scene, officers discovered detailed maps of the building, a list of possible other locations for additional attacks, and a “manifesto” detailing possible motives, Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake said.

The documents indicated “that there was going to be shootings at multiple locations, the school was one of them,” Drake told NBC News. “There was actually a map of the school detailing surveillance entry points and how this was going to be carried out on this day.”

In general, people do not switch instantly from nonviolence to violence.

In a Tuesday media briefing, Drake said Hale legally purchased seven firearms, including the three used in the attack. Hale’s parents believed the assailant, who was under treatment for an “emotional disorder,” should not have access to weapons, Drake said, but Hale hid them around their home.

Tennessee does not have a “red flag law” that would allow family members to petition a judge to suspend a loved one’s access to guns if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.

What it means for schools: The level of planning Hale demonstrated is common in mass shootings, including those that take place at schools, experts in violent behavior have said.

The common misconception that mass shooters suddenly “snap” and impulsively carry out violence can be counterproductive for educators and policymakers seeking to prevent violence through early intervention. That’s because friends and loved ones who don’t understand how violent intentions develop over time may miss a chance to intervene after witnessing signs of concerning behavior.

Those cautions date back to the response to the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., a frequent touchpoint in school safety discussions.

“In general, people do not switch instantly from nonviolence to violence,” said an FBI report published in 2000 after researchers studied the Columbine shooting. “Nonviolent people do not ‘snap’ or decide on the spur of the moment to meet a problem by using violence. Instead, the path toward violence is an evolutionary one, with signposts along the way.”

A former classmate tried to intervene

What we know: As in other school shootings, the Nashville attacker appeared to signal those intentions of violence before acting on them.

A former middle school basketball teammate, Averianna Patton, told Nashville station News Channel 5 that Hale sent her a private message on Instagram the morning of the attack.

“I’m planning to die today. THIS IS NOT A JOKE!” that message read. “You’ll probably hear about me on the news after I die.”

Patton called police, who referred her to a non-emergency line. By the time Patton got a response, Hale had already completed the attack, she told the news station.

Ivy Huesmann hugs Metro Nashville police officer Angeline Comilla before visiting the makeshift memorial at the entrance to the Covenant School on March 28, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Three children and three school staff members were killed by a former student in the mass shooting.

What it means for schools: School safety experts say that trusting connections between students and adults can be even more important than physical security features in keeping students safe.

When the gunman is a fellow student, sharing concerning messages with a teacher or administrator can give schools a chance to intervene through a process called threat assessment. Private schools, which often have smaller student bodies that share common ideologies, like religion, may have some advantages in building such relationships.

Federal data suggest students at private schools feel a greater sense of safety around their peers. In a 2019 federal survey of students ages 12 to 18, 5.3 percent of public school students reported they avoided “school activities or classes or one or more places in school because they were fearful that someone might attack or harm them.” Just 1.6 percent of private school students reported such avoidance.

But even highly trained law enforcement can struggle to identify which warning signs suggest a real intent to act, researchers from Hamline University and Metropolitan State University wrote in a December 2021 opinion piece for Education Week.

Unlike current students, adult attackers may be more socially isolated and have fewer contacts with people like teachers and administrators who could intervene or connect them to help.

Police responded quickly

What we know: The attack at The Covenant School was the deadliest shooting at a U.S. K-12 school since May 2022, when an 18-year-old former student shot and killed 19 students and two teachers at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school, according to a tracker maintained by Education Week.

Information released by Nashville police Tuesday shows a contrast in law enforcement response to those two events.

Multiple agencies that responded to the Uvalde shooting have been faulted for waiting in a hallway during a delayed and poorly coordinated response that gave the attacker more time to shoot and gave first responders less time to provide critical medical care to those injured.

By contrast, Nashville police shot and killed Hale 14 minutes after they received a 911 call about the incident, Drake, the chief, said.

I was really impressed that with all that was going on, someone took control and said ‘Let's go, let's go.'

What it means for schools: Since the Columbine shooting, it’s been standard law enforcement response in mass shootings to confront and engage the gunman as quickly as possible.

Many state school safety laws direct district leaders to coordinate and plan responses with local law enforcement agencies. Some even hold on-site training with police and teachers.

At least 43 states and the District of Columbia require a school safety plan, according to an analysis by the Education Commission of the States, while 29 states and the District of Columbia require law enforcement agencies to be involved in the creation of such a plan.

Body camera footage the department released by the Nashville police showed an adult meeting officers outside of the school to quickly describe the layout of the building and to inform them that children were locked in their classrooms. Officers ran through the building, searching rooms until they followed the sound of gunfire upstairs, confronting Hale in an open atrium area where it appeared the shootings had taken place.

“I was really impressed that with all that was going on, someone took control and said ‘Let’s go, let’s go,’” Drake told reporters Tuesday.

Parents of children killed in Uvalde noted the speed of the Nashville response.

Locked doors didn’t stop the shooter

What we know: All of the exterior doors at The Covenant School were locked, police said. Security footage showed Hale entering the building by shooting through two sets of glass doors in a side vestibule.

What it means for schools: Lawmakers who favor “hardening schools” through physical safety measures frequently raise concerns about building access after school shootings.

After a 2018 shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, critics mocked Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick as someone calling for “door control” rather than new restrictions on gun sales.

“There are too many entrances and too many exits to our over 8,000 campuses,” Patrick said. “There aren’t enough people to put a guard at every entry and exit.”

Single points of entry are held up as a model school building practice, alongside designs that ensure maximum visibility of people walking down hallways from the front office.

The Covenant School appeared to have procedures to keep exterior doors locked, as do the vast majority of public schools. In the 2019-20 school year, 97.1 percent of public schools controlled access to their buildings during school hours, according to the most recent federal data, which does not track such measures at private schools.

School shootings are less common at private schools

What we know: Mass shootings more frequently occur at public schools than at private campuses.

There have been a total of 157 school shootings in which at least one person was killed or injured since 2018, according to the EdWeek tracker. Five of those were at private schools, three of which state on their websites that they have a religious affiliation.

Of the 376 school shootings identified by the Washington Post since the 1999 attack on Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., 23—or 6 percent—happened at a private school.

See Also

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In a 2019 report, the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center identified two incidents of targeted school violence at private schools out of the 41 incidents examined in the report that occurred in K-12 schools between 2008 and 2017. The report looked at attacks with any weapon, not just guns. In a separate 2021 report from the NTAC that looked at attacks on schools that were thwarted or averted, only one private school was targeted out of 67 plots.

Overall, there are 30,492 K-12 private schools in the United States, serving about 5.5 million students, according to the latest government figures. By comparison, there are nearly 98,469 public schools serving 49.7 million students.

There are far fewer private schools in the United States than public ones, so it tracks that there have been fewer incidents of targeted violence at private schools. But because the number of attacks is so small, it’s hard to draw any broad conclusions about the relative safety of private schools.

What it means for schools: While the number of attacks on private schools is very limited, there has been a growing awareness in the private and independent school community that their campuses are not immune, said Kenneth Trump, a school safety consultant and expert on school security.

He has seen a significant increase in private school clients since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018.

“Historically, the challenge has been that many private schools have had over the past decade a mindset that it won’t happen there,” he said. “The phrase we often hear is that ‘we have a different school culture here,’ and that was focusing on potential threats from within. I think it’s evolved in more recent years to recognition that potential threats can come from within or from the outside.”

Holly Peele, Library Director contributed to this article.

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