Nashville shooting highlights safety at private schools

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE. – An alarm sounded and lights flashed as a heavily armed assailant stalked the corridors of the Covenant School.

Surveillance footage of Monday’s shooting at the Nashville private Christian school showed many known security measures, including the double-barred glass doors through which the killer forced his way before fatally shooting three children and three school employees.

“It’s almost impossible to stop someone with an AR-17 from coming through the door,” said George Grant, a Nashville presbytery leader associated with the school. Grant said the presbytery does not have a formal safety program for its churches and schools, but members have worked together to share best practices and improve safety.

In the US, private schools generally do not have to meet as many requirements as public schools to develop safety plans. In Tennessee, laws that require schools to develop and submit safety plans do not apply to private schools, the state Department of Education said in an emailed statement.

Private schools also sometimes do not have access to government safety improvement programs, although in some states private schools are eligible for government funding to improve safety with staff, equipment, and technology. Some federal grants are also available to private schools for safety assistance.

Generally, private schools don’t have access to the police, which 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 might be further attempts by private schools not only to beef up security but also to get school resource officials.”

But amid widespread concerns about mass shootings, experts say private schools have invested in violence prevention in a similar way to public schools.

Private schools were among the institutions that invested the most in safety after the 2012 shooting that killed 26 people at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. Today, private schools have some of the best-paid safety professionals, including retired federal agents, said Michael Dorn, who served as executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety center that has helped assess safety at thousands of schools.

The safety protocols for private schools are similar to those for public schools, but are more tailored to each school’s location and circumstances, said Myra McGovern of the National Association of Independent Schools.

Security like metal detectors may not be as visible at private schools, which are also considering including boarding boarders and, in some cases, the children of heads of state, she said.

“The attention to safety is similar, but the way it manifests may be different,” McGovern said.

The quality of safety plans for private schools, like public schools, varies widely, Dorn said.

“We see schools that are quite behind and some that are exceptional,” he said.

In Tennessee last year, an executive order by Gov. Bill Lee on school security directed the state to prepare a report on the use of armed guards in non-public schools and to assess their need for active gunman training.

Most U.S. school systems conduct active-shooter and lockdown training, and the Nashville school had actually undergone active-shooter training in 2022, which prevented further deaths during Monday’s shooting, city police spokeswoman Brooke said reese

Private or not, shootings are more common in middle and high schools than elementary schools like Covenant, which are less likely to have deployed security officers. Educators are also wary of unsettling young learners with tighter security measures.

Covenant School has about 200 students from preschool through sixth grade. The school and Covenant Presbyterian Church are affiliated with Nashville Presbytery, which includes Presbyterian Church in America congregations throughout Middle Tennessee and southwest Kentucky.

“In recent years, most of our churches have undergone training and a thorough review of their security arrangements,” said Grant, immediate former moderator of the Nashville Presbytery. “It’s not an official sort of presbytery-wide initiative, but it just grew out of relationships.”

Grant said the Franklin Classical School, a school under the spiritual oversight of his church, the Parish Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee, has put in place lockdown procedures and security codes. There is always a former police officer on site during school hours. It is not known if Covenant School had a security guard.

Grant said his church’s security team has called for a review of security protocols and has already scheduled training for the week after Easter.

“This is just a good reminder that we live in a broken, fallen world,” he said. “And we have to be vigilant to take care of each other as best we can.”

___ Ma reported from Washington, DC Authors Jonathan Mattise of the Associated Press in Nashville and Michael Melia of Hartford, Connecticut contributed to this report.

The Associated Press education team is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

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