Another American community is reeling after a shooter killed three 9-year-olds and three adults at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville.
Monday’s attack was the deadliest US school shooting in nearly a year and the 19th shooting at a school or university so far in 2023 that left at least one person wounded, a CNN count shows.
“Our community is heartbroken,” The Covenant School, a ministry of Covenant Presbyterian Church, said in a statement, expressing thanks to first responders for their quick response and those showing support for the school.
“We are grieving tremendous loss and are in shock coming out of the terror that shattered our school and church. We are focused on loving our students, our families, our faculty and staff and beginning the process of healing,” the school said.
“All of Tennessee was hurt yesterday,” Gov. Bill Lee said in a video statement released Tuesday night.
Here’s what we know so far about the victims:
Evelyn, 9, was a “light” who radiated joy and warmth, her family wrote in her obituary.
Her best friend was her big sister, Eleanor, the family wrote.
“As quickly as they would disagree about something, they would turn it around with snuggles on the couch, deep talks, laughter, and plans for their next grand adventure.”
Evelyn, her sister and their neighbors would participate in skits in their yards. Evelyn would often greet people with “wide open arms” and an “infectious laugh,” her family said.
She was passionate about music, crafting and animals, especially her dogs Mable and Birdie. One of Evelyn’s most prized possessions was her growing collection of stuffed tigers, all named Tony.
Evelyn often had a “sly little smile,” which could communicate more than words, her family said. She had a strong faith in God and her legacy of showing light and love to others will live on, her obituary said.
Evelyn’s funeral will be held Friday afternoon at Woodmont Christian Church, Senior Pastor Clay Stauffer said. The family asks attendees to wear pink and bright spring colors in honor of Evelyn instead of black, he said.
Hill, 61, was a beloved custodian at the school, police said, and a father of seven children.
Known as “Big Mike” to students, Hill was a member of the facilities/kitchen staff, according to the school website.
Hill loved to cook and spend time with his family, according to a family statement obtained by CNN affiliate WSMV. He had 14 grandchildren.
“We would like to thank the Nashville community for all the continued thoughts and prayers. As we grieve and try to grasp any sense of understanding of why this happened, we continue to ask for support,” the statement said.
“We pray for the Covenant School and are so grateful that Michael was beloved by the faculty and students who filled him with joy for 14 years,” it added.
Nashville parents set up a GoFundMe page to help support Hill’s family with funeral expenses.
“Per his family, he took great pleasure and found tremendous joy in his job and through those students,” the GoFundMe added.
Hill “absolutely loved” his job, his daughter Brittany Hill said Monday in a Facebook post.
“I have watched school shootings happen over the years and never thought I would lose a loved one over a person trying to solve a temporary problem with a permanent solution,” she said. “I am so sorry for the loss of those children.”
“Please keep my family in your prayers tonight. Hug your parents and children a little tighter.”
Koonce was 60, police said, and head of the school.
She attended Vanderbilt University and Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville and got her master’s degree from Georgia State University, the school said.
Christian music singer Steven Curtis Chapman and Koonce were close friends, he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday.
Koonce was “an amazing person” whose supernatural power “was kindness,” Chapman said.
“She was, you know those people that you encounter if you’re fortunate enough … they see into your soul and they see something that most people miss and just pass by,” he added. “She just had this ability, that God gave her I believe, to see into the heart and the soul and the story of the student, the person she was with.”
When Chapman and his wife first heard Monday’s attack was happening, “we knew Katherine was there, we knew she was the head of the school, and my wife even said … ‘I know her well enough to know that she was probably doing everything she could to change this story, to stop this thing from happening, to talk to this person, whatever she could do,’” he said.
Koonce’s “life marked our family so significantly,” Chapman said, detailing how she had stepped in as an educator and friend to help attend to and work with his children after his youngest daughter died in 2008 in a driveway accident.
“When we lost our younger daughter Maria in a very tragic way, our son Will in particular was carrying a very, very heavy weight,” Chapman said, adding Koonce became a “mentor, friend, confidante, she was all of those things, and teacher.”
“As hard and as awful as that story was for us, she ran towards it,” Chapman said.
Koonce’s friends and former coworkers Jim and Monica Lee also remembered her dedication.
“She gave her life because she was trying to protect students, protect faculty,” Jim Lee said Tuesday.
The educator had a great sense of humor and was confident, they said. Koonce exhibited humility and made each person she interacted with feel important, Jim Lee said.
“She could be on her knees talking to a preschool student, then she could turn around and be talking to a board member and then turn around and meet with an angry parent and then turn around and meet with the teacher that is having a bad day,” he said.
Peak, 61, was a substitute teacher at the school, according to police and officials.
She’d been close friends with Tennessee first lady Maria Lee and had been due to visit the Lee home Monday evening for dinner, the governor said.
“Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends,” Bill Lee said.
“Cindy and Maria and Katherine Koonce were all teachers at the same school and have been family friends for decades,” Lee said Tuesday in a video message. “There will be a time to talk about the legislation and budget proposals we’ve brought forward this year. And clearly, there’s more work to do.
“There is hope in the midst of great tragedy because God is a redeemer. What is meant for evil can be turned for good. May we grieve in the days ahead, but not without hope. May we also act with wisdom, discernment, and grace. And may we love, especially those who have lost,” Lee said.
Louisiana state Rep. Charles Anthony Owen had known Peak his whole life, he told CNN, adding her hometown of Leesville, Louisiana, was grieving.
“She and my sister were the closest of friends growing up and it seems like Cindy was around for all of my childhood,” he said Tuesday in a Facebook post. “She and Mae Ann had birthdays one day apart and her family lived across the street from us for a period of time. Cindy and Mae were always together.”
When his sister died, Peak was one of the first faces he recalled seeing, Owen said. “She was right here to grieve her old friend.”
Hallie, 9, had a “love for life” that bounded through her, from her smile to her “always on the go” spirit, her aunt said.
“To watch her these past 9 years has been a gift and a privilege,” Kara Arnold wrote in a Facebook post. “I have often longed for a daughter and Hallie embodied all of those things I’d want in my own little girl.”
Hallie and her son Chip were almost the same age and were very close, she said.
“When they were together no one else existed and we would rarely know where they were or what they were up to,” she wrote, adding they were usually involved in some sort of mischief.
“She was incredibly smart, feisty enough to keep up with her 3 brothers and my 4 boys, a love for life that kept her smiling and running and jumping and playing and always on the go,” she wrote.
Arnold was on her way to Nashville to be with her brother and sister-in-law, she told CNN.
“I don’t have the words to address this tragedy. I’m in shock and my boys and Adam and I can’t even comprehend that she’s gone,” she wrote. “We are grieving so deeply. And for my brother and sister in law and my nephews who are living the most unspeakable nightmare. We hurt with you and wish we could take your hurt away.”
Hallie was the daughter of Covenant Presbyterian Church Lead Pastor Chad Scruggs, according to a statement by Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas, a sister church Scruggs formerly served.
“We love the Scruggs family and mourn with them over their precious daughter Hallie,” the Texas congregation’s Senior Pastor Mark Davis said. “Together, we trust in the power of Christ to draw near and give us the comfort and hope we desperately need.”
Hallie’s funeral will be Saturday at Covenant Presbyterian Church, the school announced, adding it is assembling funeral information based on each family’s wishes.
Will, 9, had an “unflappable spirit,” friends of the Kinney family shared on a GoFundMe page.
“He was unfailingly kind, gentle when the situation called for it, quick to laugh, and always inclusive of others,” the page said. “He loved his sisters, adored his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and was always excited to host friends of every age. Sweet Will knew no strangers.”
“Our hearts are broken for his family as they try to find their way forward,” it added.