Learn how to make your campus a hard target.
From the Bible
He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler (Psalm 91:4).
Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help (Psalm 22:11).
Thousands of churches in this country have schools. Most of these schools are in buildings that are attached to the church building; some are in the church building itself, and classrooms are used as Sunday School or Sabbath School rooms. Likewise, Hebrew Schools are usually attached or adjacent to synagogues. Therefore, an attack on a school operated by the congregation of a place of worship is an attack on the congregation itself.
Just another Monday?
March 27, 2023 was the first day of another school week at The Covenant School, a part of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Nashville, Tennessee. This is an elementary school which also has students from families in other churches.
The next week was Easter Week, scheduled to be Spring Break, something to look forward to. This year, however, Easter Week was destined to be a time of mourning, finding hope in the Resurrection at the end of the week.
At 9:54 a.m. Surveillance footage showed the suspect driving into the school's parking lot and driving around to a side entrance. Three minutes later she sent a text to a former high school basketball teammate. This message prompted the teammate to contact a suicide hotline, then the county sheriff's office (possibly at the advice of the hotline operator).
By the time the sheriff's office was called, the suspect had already shot her way in through a glass door and was patrolling the hallways. The first person she met was a 61-year-old custodian. She shot him and moved on. At a stairway near the doorway to the church she went up to the second floor. There she shot three 9-year-old students. The headmistress and a substitute teacher confronted her and were also shot.
About this time, metro police arrived. The shooter saw them coming and shot at them through a second story window. Using their LEO access key, they entered the front entrance next to the church. Hearing the sounds coming from above, they bolted up the stairs. There, in a second-floor foyer, they encountered the shooter. She fell in an exchange of gunfire.
The Quiet Former Student
The shooter, age 28, had been a Covenant student for a year or two, about age 10. After high school, she attended and graduated from an arts college. At the time of the shooting, she was employed as a graphic designer. Her work was well-regarded. When she learned something, she would do it well. This showed in the shooting.
In drawings and notes left behind, the assailant had mapped out the school and meticulously planned the assault. According to police who read her journal, she had considered another target, but because of its level of security she settled on Covenant. She was able to case the place in person and map it out for planning the attack.
Those who knew the suspect described her as quiet, shy, and somewhat backwards with not many close friends. For a few years she was mourning the death of her closest friend. Some believe that this had been a romantic relationship.
In 2022, a few years after her friend's passing, she came out as transgender. She was 27at that time. Was this a reaction to her personal loss? We don't know. The role of this in the shooting has been a matter of speculation and debate. We do know that a close personal loss can destabilize a person. Her parents said she had been "under care" because of an "emotional disorder." Nevertheless, she was able to legally purchase weapons and ammunition.
The three children and three adults that were shot all died. Then the shooter herself took eight police bullets, four each from two officers, and died.
The school had gone on lockdown. When police ended the lockdown, officers led the students to another church nearby to be united with their parents. Meanwhile, the school and church asked the public to respect the privacy of the staff and of victims' families.
People in the community held vigils for the shooting victims. There was an outpouring of support for the school, the church, and the families. This included a memorial and benefit concert.
In an awkward moment, some on the Left sympathized with the shooter and not her/his victims. One public official tweeted a meme appearing to suggest that transphobes should be shot - that official ended up resigning. This is pointed out to remind us of the growing hostility from some quarters to religious persons and organizations (especially conservative ones), a factor we need to acknowledge when assessing the community climate.
There was also the debate over public policy. As expected, there were calls for more gun control, and some for red-flag laws. This was especially so in the city of Nashville and in the Tennessee legislature. This included protests at the state capitol and shout-downs from the gallery in the House.
The legislature did pass laws on school safety. One key law allows private schools to hire local police officers or deputies as school resource officers (with the schools paying them). In August, the governor called for a special session on public safety.
A long-continuing issue has been whether the writings of the shooter should be made publically available. One side argues that they would inspire other shooters and detail how to plan an attack. The other side says that they are needed to help policy makers know how to better protect the public.
The school objects to their release because it would reveal "sensitive" information. Victims' families said they would cause too much pain, even if redacted.
The key question is, "How we can keep our schools safe?"
Lesson Learned: Harden the Target
Five key facts stand out in the description of the Covenant School shooting. These provide clues to hardening the target:
- First, this school was chosen because it was a soft target, unlike another considered target.
- Second, surveillance cameras recorded the assailant entering the parking lot and parking near the side door.
- Third, the assailant gained entry by shooting out a locked glass door.
- Fourth, the police had a key to the school which gave them immediate access in this emergency.
- A fifth fact, notable by its omission, is the absence of persons primarily responsible for safety and security at the school.
A research paper published earlier this year indicates that crimes may be committed against churches because they are soft targets. An example of this is the North Valley Jewish Community Center shooting in 1999. The shooter selected that location because his preferred higher-profile targets had strong security. The Covenant School shooter selected this location because it had a lower security level than another potential target.
Surveillance cameras should be monitored, especially when the school or church is occupied. The parking lot of a school usually does not have constant in-and-out traffic, so any vehicle coming in should be an object of interest. With intermittent activity, the TV monitors are not likely to be watched constantly. Thanks to modern technology, sensors can send an alert to whoever will be monitoring the cameras and they can look to see what is out there (maybe even on a hand-held device). If the suspect had been observed taking weapons from the vehicle, a lockdown could have been immediately initiated and 911 called.
Shooting out the glass door was too easy, since it shattered. The SDCS article "Strengthen the Gate (Harden Church Doors and Windows)" advises using shatterproof glass for side windows and glass doors. One type is double-paned with wire mesh between the panes. Another is like windshields with a flexible plastic between the panes. Another has a shatterproof coating (this can be applied to already installed glass). The safety advantage is two-fold. First, persons nearby are not injured by flying glass if it breaks. Second, it takes a while for an intruder to shoot a hole big enough to come through (maybe not at all with the wire mesh) giving more time for a response.
Emergency Services Access
This is a good point. If 911 is called - or an automatic fire alarm signal goes to the fire department - the police or the firefighters can get in without waiting for someone or breaking down the doors if they have a key or the code to a keyless lock. There are several situations besides an active killer needing quick entry by emergency responders. The LEO key may have saved other lives by letting officers get in as soon as they arrived to neutralize the killer before she could shoot her way into a locked classroom or go into the church.
The fifth fact was addressed by the Tennessee legislature with a law allowing private schools to hire school resource officers from local law enforcement agencies. A church should have a Church Safety Ministry. At the same time, a church-operated school should have safety/security persons on its staff or by contract.
Making a church a hard target can reduce its chance of being a target of crime, including violent assaults. This includes stronger entry points and trained safety teams.
Part of hardening the target (a church or a church school) is training safety and security team members. Sheepdog Church Security offers this training in its Safety Member Certification program. There are three training formats: Team Certification (church-hosted classes), Individual Certification (self-paced online instruction), and Online Events (live Zoom® classes). The 2023-24 Online Events school year is now in session. Classes are on Sunday afternoons at 3:00 pm Central Time.
Sheepdog Church Security Resources
- Kris Moloney, "Active Shooter Response," Safety Member Certification, Sheepdog Church Security, © 2020 [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/].
- This paper (James C. Wo (2023), "Crime generators or social capital organizations? Examining the effects of places of worship on neighborhood crime," PLoS ONE 18(3): e0282196; Retrieved October 7, 2023 from Disabled World [www.disabled-world.com/communication/religion/religious-crime.php]) is cited in reference 2 of the SDCS article "The Community Climate - Part 1," (WGV, "The Community Climate - Part 1 (Evaluating the Opportunities and Risks of Your Community)," Articles, Sheepdog Church Security, October 30, 2023 [https://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/articles/the-community-climage-part01/]).
- WGV, "1999 North Valley Jewish Community Center Shooting (Lesson Learned)," Articles, Sheepdog Church Security, August 8, 2023 [https://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/articles/1999-north-valley-jewish-community-center-shooting/].
- WGV, "Strengthen the Gate (Harden Church Doors and Windows)," Articles, Sheepdog Church Security, March 28, 2022 [https://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/articles/strengthen-the-gate/].
- "2023 Nashville school shooting," Wikipedia, accessed October 26, 2023 [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2023_Nashville_school_shooting].
- Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, "The Nashville school shooter had a 'manifesto' and maps, police say," The New York Times. March 27, 2023 [https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/27/us/nashville-school-shooting-audrey-hale.html].
- Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, "The shooter had posted on Facebook in recent years about the death of a romantic partner, a former teacher says," The New York Times. March 28, 2023, [https://www.nytimes.com/live/2023/03/28/us/nashville-school-shooting-tennessee?smid=url-share#the-shooter-had-posted-on-facebook-in-recent-years-about-the-death-of-a-romantic-partner-a-former-teacher-says].
- Christina Zdanowicz, "Nashville shooter Audrey Hale had a 'child-like obsession with staying a child,' college classmate says," CNN, March 28, 2023, updated March 30, 2023 [https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/28/us/audrey-hale-nashville-school-shooting/index.html].
- Graeme Massie, "Audrey Hale: Former student left map and manifesto after shooting six at Nashville Christian school," The Independent, March 27, 2023 [https://www.the-independent.com/news/world/americas/crime/audrey-hale-nashville-shooter-identified-b2309144.htmll].