Police seek motive as Nashville school shooting captures the attention of a divided nation

Children from The Covenant School, a private Christian school in Nashville, Tenn., hold hands as they are taken to a reunification site at the Woodmont Baptist Church after a deadly shooting at their school on Monday, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise)

A private Christian school in Nashville became the nation's latest mass killing scene Monday after a 28-year-old former student entered with high-powered guns and opened fire, killing three children and three adult staff members, authorities said.

The children were all 9 years old. The staff members included the head of the school, a substitute teacher and a custodian.

The suspect, identified by police as Nashville resident Audrey Hale, allegedly left behind a "manifesto" and maps of the school, though police have not described the manifesto in detail or ascribed a motive to the attack. The shooter was killed by responding officers.

The incident immediately captured the attention and anger of a divided nation already exhausted by a parade of mass shootings and a growing cultural war over LGBTQ rights. The shooter identified as transgender, according to police.

Perhaps nowhere is that war as pronounced as in Tennessee, where conservative legislators recently banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth and barred drag queens or other "male or female impersonators" from performing anywhere near children.

Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake said police were examining whether the shooter's transgender identity was part of the motive for the shooting.

"As we know more, we'll definitely make that known, but right now we're unsure if that actually played a role," he said.

Drake said police believed the shooter might have harbored some "resentment" for "having to go to that school," but he did not elaborate.

Police did not respond to requests for clarity around Hale's gender identity, chosen name or pronouns.

The Covenant School is part of Covenant Presbyterian Church, according to the school's website, and serves about 200 students in preschool through sixth grade. Police said the shooter entered the first floor of the school, which connects to the church, after shooting through a set of glass doors.

"We know there were two AR-style weapons — one a rifle, another was an AR-style pistol, and the other was a handgun," Drake said. "We believe two of those may have been obtained legally, locally."

Police said the shooter had arrived at the school in a Honda Fit, which police searched after the attack — finding writings by the shooter.

The assailant's maps of the school were detailed and included surveillance and entry points, Drake said. The shooter had "multiple rounds of ammunition," was "prepared for confrontation with law enforcement," and was believed to have acted alone, Drake said.

Drake said the shooter "randomly targeted" the six victims, who were identified as Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all age 9; head of school Katherine Koonce, 60; Cynthia Peak, a 61-year-old substitute teacher; and Mike Hill, a 61-year-old custodian.

Families of the victims could not immediately be reached Monday.

The first 911 call came in about 10:13 a.m., police said. When officers arrived, the shooter opened fire on them from a second-story window, police said.

The entire incident lasted about 14 minutes, ending after a five-member team of responding officers shot the assailant to death on the school's second floor, police said. There were no officers specifically assigned to the church-run school, police said.

Hours after the shooting, investigators were seen on video swarming a Nashville residence associated with the shooter's family a few miles from the school.

Tennessee has been at the forefront of a recent conservative movement targeting transgender people and others in the LGBTQ community.

Last month, state legislators passed a bill banning transgender youth from receiving gender-affirming care. Conservatives have claimed such care is inappropriate for children regardless of what they, their families or their doctors think. Critics have decried the law as an invasion of transgender people’s rights and a threat to the mental and physical health of transgender kids, who can suffer greatly when they are unable to express their identity.

Earlier this month, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to severely limit drag performances by passing a bill that defines “male or female impersonators” as adult cabaret performers — thus banning drag performances from public spaces or anywhere children may be present.

Conservatives have suggested drag queens are sexualized performers who have no business performing in front of children, even when those performances have nothing to do with sex and are limited to children’s book readings. LGBTQ advocates and other critics of the law have lambasted it as another baseless attack on the LGBTQ community and particularly on transgender people, who they say could be unfairly targeted under the law based on their identity and appearance.

The laws are part of a much larger national campaign by conservative pundits, political leaders and policymakers to cast LGBTQ people as a threat to children and to question the rights of transgender people overall.

Aiman Masri, owner of Fresh Wraps & Smoothies, a deli down the street from the Covenant School, said he heard what sounded like fireworks Monday morning before police arrived.

"The cops came all around and came inside the building," he said, referring to the office building that houses his restaurant. "We feel really bad for what's happened."

Nashville Mayor John Cooper expressed his condolences to the victims' families in a tweet, writing that his city had "joined the dreaded, long list of communities to experience a school shooting."

In a Monday news conference, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said President Biden had been briefed and was in touch with federal and local officials involved in the shooting.

Jean-Pierre called on Congress to pass an assault weapons ban.

"The president has been very clear," she said. "We need to take more action."

She noted that Biden earlier this month signed an executive order aimed at curbing gun violence in the wake of the deadly Monterey Park dance hall shooting. But, she said, further action from Congress is needed to create more robust gun control to help ensure these shootings stop.

In his own remarks Monday, Biden also called on Congress to pass the assault weapons ban, saying gun violence is "ripping at the soul of the nation."

Biden ordered U.S. flags to be flown at half staff until Friday.

The killings come as communities around the nation are reeling from a spate of school violence, including the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, last year; a first-grader who shot his teacher in Virginia in January; and a shooting last week in Denver that wounded two administrators.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent online database that tracks gun violence using police, government, media and other public data, there have been 129 mass shootings in the U.S. this year, including Monday's massacre in Nashville. The organization defines a mass shooting as a minimum of four people shot — either injured or killed — not including any shooter who may also have been killed or injured.

The Nashville attack follows a string of mass shootings in California, including the Monterey Park shooting that left 11 people dead; a massacre in Goshen in which six family members were gunned down; and a workplace dispute at Half Moon Bay that left seven farmworkers dead.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention organization, ranks Tennessee 29th for its firearm legislation, one of the weakest in the nation. Although the state has laws that bar some people from owning a gun — including those with domestic abuse convictions, people with mental health issues or felons — it does not require background checks for purchases or permits to carry concealed weapons. It also does not have "red flag" laws that would permit a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person believed to present a danger to themselves or others.

Times staff writer Erin Logan contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.