'Could happen anywhere': Middle TN private schools grieve, examine safety protocols (2023)

Kerri Bartlett,Scott Broden,Kenya AndersonMurfreesboro Daily News Journal

As private schools grapple with grief over the tragedy at The Covenant School Monday in Nashville, they are also examining present and future safety protocols to best protect children.

Three children and three adults died Monday at the private Christian school in Nashville, the episode ending when police killed an armed intruder, who forcibly entered the school.

Among those seeking to protect children and adults is Sister Catherine Marie, the principal at Saint Rose of Lima Catholic School in Murfreesboro.

"Our hearts go out to the people at The Covenant School," Sister Catherine Marie said. "Our school community has prayed for the faculty, staff, students and families of the Covenant community."

Saint Rose hired a school resource officer in January to protect a school serving 395 children. The SRO has 11 years of experience as a police officer for the Metro Nashville and Lebanon forces, the principal said.

The Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Nashville provides experts to Saint Rose to evaluate campus safety and lead training for all teachers on crisis issues annually, Sister Catherine Marie said.

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Many private, independent and Christian schools around Middle Tennessee seem to be following suit, strengthening safety plans by budgeting for a full-time armed law enforcement officers funded by tuition costs or fundraising.

"It’s a matter of putting best practices in placebased on what we know," the principal said.

The school, for example, had a Metro Nashville Police Department expert evaluate the campus for safety purposes, and a parent committee was involved in seeking better safety protocols.

"And from that, we made the decision to hire an SRO," Sister Catherine Marie said.

According to Myra McGovern, spokesperson for National Association of Independent Schools representing 2,000 institutions, no sweeping document exists dictating safety protocols for private schools, unlike larger public school districts that have standard emergency plans across multiple campuses.

"At private schools, emergency plans are very specific to a campus and tailored to its population with specific needs," McGovern said. "I feel that's a benefit.

"Some campuses are located in urban areas, while some are located in rural areas, and some have boarding schools. Needs vary a lot. All schools are looking at keeping students safe."

Like most schools public and private, Saint Rose keeps the doors locked before allowing visitors to enter the school. The campus also uses Raptor technology to capture the image of a school visitor and do a background check using the sex offender registry, also another common practice among public and some private schools.

"We are protective of who’s exposed to our students," Sister Catherine Marie said.

The principal would like to see the nation find solutions to violence.

"There needs to be awareness of the need for mental health services and strong communities of faith," Sister Catherine Marie said.

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Although hiring an armed officer as part of safety plans might be fairly new to private schools, public schools in Middle Tennessee adopted the practice in the early 1990s.

When SROs arrived in Tennessee

Tennessee's standard for providing SROs started with Rutherford County in 1993 with former Sheriff Truman Jones. He provided an initial pilot of one SRO at five campuses: La Vergne, Oakland and Riverdale high schools, and Central and Smyrna middle schools.

Rutherford County Schools now has at least one SRO at every campus and two at the larger high schools for a district with 50 schools, serving nearly 51,000 students.

The Murfreesboro City Police Department also provides an SRO in each of the city's 14 school buildings.

Dating back to 1999, Maury County Public Schools also became one of the first school districts in the state to equip each school, almost 20 back then, with a school resource officer.

"I am proud of the foresight we had back then," said Don Morrow, retired Maury County Commission Chairman of the Board. The commission first began the conversation in 1996, following a school shooting in nearby Giles County at Richland High School, and then in 1999 a mass shooting occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado.

"It was for more than safety. We thought it was good for the kids to see the officers on campus and know they are the good guys, a support to them."

Sandy Hook sets next stage for securing SROs

Although Rutherford and Maury counties got a head start in funding SROs, the tipping point for Williamson County was the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown Connecticut, which claimed 28 lives.

It wasn’t 48 hours after the tragedy, the hurt still fresh, before the Williamson County Commission and county school board agreed to fund an SRO in each elementary school in addition to its middle and high schools.

TN's first SROs established in 1993: Rutherford County's first school resource officer retires

Tragedy reverberates through private school communities

At Redeemer Classical Academy located at Fellowship Bible Church in west Murfreesboro, board members have already formulated safety plans alongside the construction of its new school building.

Brent Pierce, a board member, says many are still in shock after events this week. His daughter’s best friend is a student at The Covenant School, “who thank God is safe,” he said.

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He and his wife for a number of years attended Covenant Presbyterian Church and have friends with children who attend the congregation’s school.

“I spent a number of hours wondering if they were among those deceased,” Pierce said. “It was a terrible, terrible day for the private Christian schools across Tennessee. The whole community has been in prayer. We just want to be supportive for Covenant during this time.”

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Columbia Headmaster: Being prepared the best we can

James Thomas, president of Columbia Academy, serving over 1,100 students across two campuses in Columbia and Spring Hill, said the tragedy has highlighted that "it can happen anywhere."

“It is just heartbreaking. You have to realize it can happen anywhere. That’s why we have to be so prepared the best we can,” Thomas said. “It’s a teacher’s and a parent’s and a student’s worst nightmare."

About seven years ago, the school hired an armed director of security, who is a former Franklin, Tennessee police officer. Last fall, the school added a second fulltime security officer to meet the demands of growth.

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Thomas said he just attended a Tennessee Association of Independent Schools conference at The Covenant School last fall.

“I was at that campus back in August for a conference, and they have security measures in place as well. But you just never know,” he said.

Increased violence in school areas led CA to make the decision to hire the officers, Thomas said.

“It's the situation in the world these days — the way that our culture and society has changed. We pay attention to that. Student safety is our first priority. Before they can learn, they have to be safe. Before we can impact them with our mission, they have to be safe.”

Thomas said the school has a strong working partnership with the Maury County Sheriff’s Office and the Columbia Police department. The school takes a host of security measures, including automatic locking doors, security cameras and provides safety training for staff.

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'About saving time'

In northern Middle Tennessee, one of the larger private schools Clarksville Christian School, serving more than 550 students in pre-Pre-K through 12th grade, is planning to add uniform personnel in the future.

“This terrible tragedy also reminds us about the importance of having sound policies and procedures in place for emergency preparedness,” CCS Vice President, Andrea Pewitt said. “As we debrief this incident, we will take what we learn from recent events as we review our protocols and procedures.”

A multi-member school security team meets routinely to review security protocols, she said.

In dealing with the losses this week, Pewitt said: “As a Christian school, we believe in the power of prayer and seek to provide spiritual guidance and support to our students and staff during times of tragedy and hardship."

A team of staff and parents at historic Zion Christian Academy in Columbia, which has a growing population, will review its safety protocols and procedures next week.

The school recently hired a full-time armed law enforcement officer, who began serving the campus in August. And teachers attended emergency training last summer.

"It brings back into focus that danger and evil exist. Our goal is to protect kids and continue examining our plans."

Commending the Nashville police officers who acted quickly in the span of 14 minutes to stop the shooter at The Covenant School, Jarvis said he has learned that "it's about saving time."

"Fourteen minutes was impressive," he said. "It's about slowing the person down who wants to do harm and speeding up the response time. Having a deputy on campus cuts down our response time."

During the school day this week, prayer services have helped students and staff process the grief and disbelief.

"We talk about what it means to have a sovereign God, what it means to be living in a sinful world and the necessity of turning to Jesus," Jarvis said.

Reach reporter Scott Broden with news tips or questions by emailing him at sbroden@dnj.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottBroden. To support his work with The Daily News Journal, sign up for a digital subscriptionfor all dnj.com stories.

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Kerri Bartlett is editor of The Daily Herald and deputy of the Middle Tennessee Region. To support the publication's work, subscribe to its daily newsletter at columbiadailyherald.com. Email kbartlett@gannett.com.

Reach reporter Kenya Anderson with news tips or questions by emailing her at kanderson@gannett.com.


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