A former student killed three children and three adults at a Christian elementary school in Nashville on Monday, armed with two “assault-style” weapons and a handgun after elaborately planning the massacre by drawing a detailed map and conducting surveillance of the building, police said.
Nashville’s chief of police, John Drake, told NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt that the shooter had planned to attack several different places, saying a manifesto belonging to the suspect “indicates that there was going to be shootings at multiple locations, and the school was one of them”.
Drake said investigators believed the shooting stemmed from “some resentment” the suspect harbored “for having to go to that school” as a younger person.
The shooting at the Covenant school in Nashville was the latest in a series of mass shootings in a country that has grown increasingly unnerved by bloodshed in schools.
Officers shot and killed the attacker at the Covenant school, which is attached to the Covenant Presbyterian church in the Tennessee state capital.
Nashville police identified the victims as Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all nine years old; Cynthia Peak, a substitute teacher, aged 61; Katherine Koonce, aged 60; and Mike Hill, a custodian, aged 61.
The website of school, a Presbyterian establishment founded in 2001, lists a Katherine Koonce as the head of the school. Her LinkedIn online profile says she has led the school since July 2016.
For Megan Hill, the day’s agony unfolded over six long hours, marked by posts on Facebook in which she identified herself as the niece of one of the victims.
“Shooting at the school where my Dad, my uncle and my stepmom work please pray right now,” she wrote at about noon local time.
Six hours later, she posted an update.
“I’m just in shock and disbelief,” wrote Hill. “My heart is broken I do not understand why someone would shoot up a school with precious babies inside.
“My uncle lost his life in this shooting today,” she wrote. “My mom’s brother Lord help me and my family please pray for all my cousins.”
Lamenting the “heartbreaking” attack, Joe Biden repeated his call for Congress to pass meaningful gun control reform including an assault weapons ban.
“We have to do more to stop gun violence ripping our communities apart,” the president said at the White House. “It’s ripping the soul from this nation.”
Drake said: “I was literally moved to tears to see this and the kids as they were being ushered out of the building.” Police later released security footage of the shooter firing at a glass school door to gain access before moving through the corridors, carrying what appeared to be a rifle. The shooter wore a black vest over a white T-shirt, camouflage pants and a backwards red baseball cap.
In 2020, guns overtook auto accidents as the leading cause of death among children and teens.
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 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.
The shooter was named as Audrey Elizabeth Hale, 28, and from Nashville.
Drake said Hale was a former student at the school. He also said Hale identified as transgender.
Entry was gained by shooting through a door, Drake said, adding that maps had been drawn of the school, including entry points, and he said, “We have a manifesto, some writings that we’re going over.”
Hale had “no [criminal] history at all”, Drake said, adding that one AR-style weapon in the attack was a rifle and one a pistol while the other gun was a handgun. Police believed two of the guns were obtained legally, Drake said.
Authorities were speaking to the shooter’s father, he added.
Don Aaron, a police spokesperson, said the first call about the shooting came at 10.13am. The shooter, Aaron said “entered on the lower floor. There were shots all over the floor before [the shooter] went to the upper level. And it was on the upper level where [the shooter] was confronted by police and killed.”
The shooting happened in a “lobby-type area” and “not in a classroom per se”, Aaron said. The shooter was dead by 10.27am.
Drake said the school had an active shooter protocol. He said some children “evacuated to a wood line” behind the school, while some went to a fire hall. After the shooting, children were seen walking, holding hands and surrounded by police cars, to the nearby Woodmont Baptist church, to be reunited with parents.
Aaron said there were no police personnel assigned to the school.
The shooting was just the latest such horrific event. Last May, in Uvalde, Texas, 19 children and two teachers were killed at an elementary school. More recently, a six-year-old shot his teacher in Virginia and a high-school student in Colorado shot two administrators.
According to the K-12 School Shooting Database resource, there have been at least 89 instances of gun violence at kindergarten through 12th-grade schools or during school activities in the US this year.
The Nashville shooting was the 128th US mass shooting this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as one where at least four people are wounded or killed, not counting the attacker.
The Covenant school has about 209 students from pre-school through sixth grade and 42 staff members, Aaron said. A woman whose mother teaches at the school told reporters they texted as the attack took place.
Avery Myrick said: “She said she was hiding in the closet and that they were shooting all over, and that they were potentially trying to get into a room. It was really scary, really sad.”
Hannah McDonald, a reporter for News Channel 5, told viewers her mother-in-law worked at the school but was on a break when the shooting happened.
“My mother-in-law is the front-desk angel,” McDonald said. “The school is kind of situated sideways, if you will. So the front door is actually on the side of the building. And that’s where she sits, and so you walk down a long exterior pathway to the front door, and then you see her smiling face in the morning there. She was outside the school and she heard gunshots.”
Drake said: “It could have been far, far worse.”
David Rausch, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said authorities sent “heartfelt prayers to the families … of these victims”.
He added: “Now I know there’ll be people who want to criticise us for prayers. That’s the way we do that in the south. We believe in prayer and we believe in the power of prayer. So our prayers go out to these families.”
Ramon Antonio Vargas and the Associated Press contributed reporting