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Nashville holds quiet vigil to honor victims as debates over shooting roar nationwide

Sarah Tuck, of Lebanon, Tenn., prays with her daughter Emmalin Sweeney, 10, during a community vigil held for the people killed during the Covenant School shooting on Tuesday, March 28, 2023, in Mt. Juliet, Tenn. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP)
Sarah Tuck, of Lebanon, Tenn., prays with her daughter Emmalin Sweeney, 10, during a community vigil held for the people killed during the Covenant School shooting on Tuesday, March 28, 2023, in Mt. Juliet, Tenn. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP)
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Several prayer vigils took place across Nashville Wednesday to honor and remember the six people killed in a school shooting Monday.

The heartbroken community is mourning the loss of three staff members and three students at Covenant School who were gunned down by 28-year-old former student Audrey Hale.

In extreme tragedy — and this is certainly one — Nashville comes together like no other to comfort those who have suffered an unspeakable loss,” Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake said.

The victims were identified as Evelyn Dieckhaus,9; Hallie Scruggs, 9; William Kinney, 9; Cynthia Peak, 61; Katherine Koonce, 60 and Mike Hill, 61. Peak was a substitute teacher, Hill was a custodian and Koonce was the head of the school.

A new story of heroism emerged from the school Tuesday, as WZTV reported that Koonce abruptly ended a video call meeting after hearing gunfire, heading toward the shooter. The police chief says she was killed during that confrontation.

She’s being hailed as a hero, alongside MNPD officers Rex Englebert and Michael Collazo, who ran towards the danger and killed the shooter, putting an end to the threat.

Donation funds have been set up an for the school to help those healing — "Caring for Covenant Fund” — as well as a GoFundMe to support victims.

First Lady Jill Biden visited the growing memorial at the Covenant School in Nashville Wednesday, stopping at the crosses for each victim before leaving a bouquet.

Biden, an educator herself, then attended the first of many vigils for the six victims. The First Lady did not make remarks but stood with city leaders as they spoke to hundreds of others trying to process what happened.

I want to thank all of you for being here today. I so wish we did not need to be here but we need to be here. Together. As a community,” Nashville Mayor John Cooper said.

More and more flowers, balloons, stuffed animals and other items of comfort are being added to the memorial as community members try to make sense of the tragedy.

There are no definitive answers or explanations for the violence as of yet; investigators are trying to piece together the motive for the attack. Some speculate that Hale, who identifies as transgender, may have harbored some animosity toward the religious school. However, police maintain that they cannot say that was the reason for the shooting.

There may be some resentment but we haven't been able to confirm that,” Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake said.

Despite this, anti-LGBTQ+ crusaders — specifically anti-trans cultural warriors — have come out in full force, looking to label the attack as a hate crime that they claim was spurred by anti-Christian sentiment and “dangerous” rhetoric related to supporting trans rights. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has claimed that the so-called "trans movement" is targeting Christians.

The tragedy opened up a new line of argument in the perennial debate over the root of gun violence in the U.S. — particularly school shootings — and how to best address it.

In the wake of the shooting, several Democrats jumped to their party's prototypical response, calling for stricter gun regulation — and President Joe Biden renewed his push for Congress to pass an assault weapons ban.

Some Republicans, however, are using the gender of the shooter as a flashpoint to pivot from the conversation on gun control and instead shift the focus to concerns over mental health.

"We can pass all the laws we want, but somebody's going to 3D print a book, somebody's going to get ammonium nitrate like they did in Oklahoma and Timothy McVeigh – completely evil – didn't have an assault weapon, whatever that is. Whatever the new definition of that is,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn.

I don't think you're going to stop the gun violence," Burchett added. "I think you've got to change people's hearts.

Hale bought seven guns from five different gun stores legally in the days leading up to the shooting. Authorities, who later confirmed that Hale was receiving treatment for a mental disorder, said they had no reports that the shooter could be a danger.

With a GOP-controlled House, it’s unlikely that any significant legislation on guns will come from the federal government. That notion has got parents and local leaders across the country thinking about the steps that they can take on their own to protect students.

“We've done Security and Emergency Planning assessments for private, independent parochial schools across the nation,” said Ken Trump, a school security expert with National School Safety and Security Services. “Now the important thing to remember is the vast majority of schools will never experience a school shooting but one is one too many.”

It has also been noted that because Covenant School is a private institution, there was no security at the school. Private schools generally do not have the same security requirements as public schools and The Associated Press reports that, in Tennessee, laws requiring schools to develop and submit safety plans do not apply to private schools.

Some private schools may also lack security because they sometimes don’t have access to government programs that could help them hire officers. There may also be other barriers, according to Trump.

Private schools, we've seen, have their own in-house security staff, off-duty police officers, or perhaps none of the above. Oftentimes it's a funding issue," he said. But he also says more private schools are looking to beef up security and make sure they have adequate emergency plans.

“Private schools are reaching out more and more to ask to have security evaluated, to have written emergency plans reviewed and hopefully to have their staff engaged in training and conversations and to prevent these types of incidents."

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, firearm-related injuries are now the leading cause of death in American children and teens — a statistic that is difficult to digest as the debate over arming student resource officers continues. But it's just another leg of the highly politicized conversations surrounding firearms in schools.

We know that the political conversation is polarized. To continue, we need to focus on what can we do here and now and that's what parents are really asking for. Let the politics continue on but make our schools safer today,” Trump said.

He says that after his organization analyzed the highest profile school shootings in the country, much of the problem does not come from failures in security hardware or equipment, its allegations of human error — people, policies, procedures, training, communication — not security, hardware, technology and equipment.

“So, we say avoid the security theater, the shiny objects, the things that give us emotional security blankets,” he said. “We're shifting focus on training to situational awareness, making sure staff is mindful of their surroundings, recognizing abnormalities and patterns and cognitive decision making under stress, being able to make a decision thing unfold right away without delay.” .

He also says parents have a duty to be aware of what’s happening with their children and look for warning signs or key information that could help prevent another tragedy.

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“The number one way we find out about it: kids come forward and report it,” Trump said. “We have to take reasonable steps to prepare but we also want to make sure the parents are having age and developmentally-appropriate conversations with their kids.”

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