Nashville Covenant shooting highlights security at private schools
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - An alarm blared and lights flashed as a heavily armed assailant stalked the hallways of The Covenant School.
Surveillance footage of the shooting Monday at the private Christian school in Nashville showed many familiar security measures, including the double set of locked glass doors the killer shot their way through before fatally shooting three children and three school employees.
"It’s just next to impossible to stop someone with an AR-17 coming through the door," said George Grant, a leader with the Nashville Presbytery, which is connected with the school. Grant said the presbytery doesn’t have a formal security program for its churches and schools but that members have worked together to share best practices and improve safety.
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Around the U.S., private schools generally do not face as many requirements as public schools for developing security plans. In Tennessee, laws requiring schools to develop and submit safety plans do not apply to private schools, an emailed statement from the state Department of Education said.
Private schools also sometimes lack access to government programs to bolster security, though private schools in some states are eligible for state money to bolster security with staff, equipment and technology. Some federal grants also are available to private schools for security aid.
Generally, private schools don't have access to the police many public schools have assigned to their campuses, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. He said some private schools have arranged to hire recently retired officers.
"I would imagine after this horrific situation in Nashville that there may be more attempts by private schools to try to not only bolster security but to get school resource officers."
Still, amid widespread concerns about mass shootings, experts say private schools have invested similarly to public schools in violence prevention.
Girls embrace in front of a makeshift memorial for victims by the Covenant School building at the Covenant Presbyterian Church following a shooting, in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 28, 2023. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Private schools were among institutions that invested most heavily in security in the aftermath of the 2012 shooting that killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Today, private schools have some of the highest-paid security specialists, including retired federal agents, said Michael Dorn, who has been involved in assessing security at thousands of schools as executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety center.
Security protocols for private schools are similar to those for public schools, but they are more tailored to each school’s location and circumstances, said Myra McGovern of the National Association of Independent Schools.
Security such as metal detectors may not be as visible at private schools, which also have considerations including boarding students and, in some cases, the children of heads of state to look after, she said.
"Attention to security is similar, but the way that it manifests is perhaps different," McGovern said.
The quality of safety plans for private schools also varies widely, as it does for public schools, Dorn said.
"We see schools that are pretty behind and some that are exceptional," he said.
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In Tennessee, an executive order last year by Gov. Bill Lee on school safety measures directed the state to conduct a report on the use of armed guards in nonpublic schools and assess their need for active-shooter training.
Most U.S. school systems conduct active-shooter and lockdown trainings, and the Nashville school had in fact undergone active-shooter training in 2022, which prevented further loss of life during Monday's shooting, city police spokesperson Brooke Reese said.
Private or not, shootings are more common at middle and high schools than at elementary schools like Covenant, which are less likely to have assigned security officers. Educators also are wary of unsettling young learners with more heavy-handed security measures.
The Covenant School has about 200 students from preschool through sixth grade. The school and the Covenant Presbyterian Church are connected with the Nashville Presbytery, which includes congregations in the Presbyterian Church in America, across Middle Tennessee and southwestern Kentucky.
"Over the last several years, most of our churches have undergone training and have really scrutinized their security arrangements," said Grant, the immediate past moderator for the Nashville Presbytery. "It’s not an official sort of presbytery-wide initiative, but it has just sort of grown out of relationships."
Grant said Franklin Classical School, a school under the spiritual oversight of his church, Parish Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee, has lockdown procedures and security codes in place. The school always has a former police officer on site when school is in session. It is unknown whether The Covenant School had a security officer.
Grant said his church’s security team has called for a review of security protocols and already had training planned for the week after Easter.
"This is just a good reminder that we live in a broken, fallen world," he said. "And we need to be vigilant to care for one another as best we can."
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Ma reported from Washington, D.C. Associated Press writers Jonathan Mattise in Nashville and Michael Melia in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.