A year after deadly Nashville shooting, Christian school relies on faith — and adopted dogs

Nearly a year after a shooting at a Christian elementary school in Nashville that left three adults and three children dead, students and their families have formed tight bonds out of their shared grief
Chaplain of The Covenant School Matthew Sullivan stands in the school's church sanctuary where he lead chapel service in the past, Friday, March 22, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. Facing the first anniversary of a tragic shooting which left six people dead, the school, which has been meeting in a temporary location, prepares to move back into the building where it happened. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Chaplain of The Covenant School Matthew Sullivan stands in the school's church sanctuary where he lead chapel service in the past, Friday, March 22, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. Facing the first anniversary of a tragic shooting which left six people dead, the school, which has been meeting in a temporary location, prepares to move back into the building where it happened. (AP Photo/John Amis)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Nearly a year after a shooting at a Christian elementary school in Nashville that left three adults and three children dead, the students and their families have formed tight bonds out of their shared suffering. They've also adopted a lot of dogs.

Among the adopters is Matthew Sullivan, who now cares for a Rhodesian ridgeback named Hank. He is the chaplain at Covenant School, which endured an all-too-common tragedy on March 27, 2023, when a former student shot through the exterior doors and kept going. Sullivan isn’t allowed to talk about what happened inside the building that day, but he says it, and the days that followed, are a blur anyway.

Some things stand out though. He remembers walking to safety with the students in a human chain and one of them asking, “Where’s Evelyn?” He remembers the eerie feeling he got when he realized that Head of School Katherine Koonce was not responding on the text thread among the teachers. He remembers the endless waiting at a nearby church as students were slowly reconnected with parents. No one had a comprehensive list of students; it took hours to make sure everyone was accounted for and with their proper guardians.

It wasn’t until much later that evening that Sullivan learned which of his pupils and colleagues he would never see again: Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all 9 years old; Koonce, 60; custodian Mike Hill, 61; and 61-year-old substitute teacher Cynthia Peak.

ONCE DISCONNECTED, COVENANT DADS BUILD BONDS POST SHOOTING

Now, as the school faces the first anniversary of the tragedy and moves back into the building where it happened, Sullivan says one positive aspect of the past year has been the bond that has grown between families.

“It’s been an incredible cementing of community,” he said. “Prayer groups have formed of moms, then of dads, and these people — that’s now in their weekly routine without fail. Like, they can’t miss it. They don’t want to miss it.”

One day a group of dads showed up at school asking for the teachers’ car keys. They were there to wash and vacuum all the cars.

“That never would have happened before,” Sullivan said. “Our dads were, I would say, relatively disconnected, but now they’re really in touch.”

Often they will drop the kids off but stay for morning chapel, sitting in the back.

“They bring their coffee and sing the songs and do the silly hand motions,” Sullivan said. “It’s really deepened us in ways that, I mean, it would have been great to not have to go through this to do it, but, here we are.”

Houston Phillips is one of those dads in the back of the chapel.

“It is for community, but it’s also one of those things where, as long as they’re going to let me in the school, I’m going to try to be there because of what happened. I want to be close to my son,” he said.

Like many other dads, he has become very involved with Covenant and close with other families.

“I was always kind of like, man, I don’t have time for the friends that I already have, so making new friends is not something I was very interested in,” he said. But after the shooting, he found the other parents were people he could talk to who understand what he is going through. “And having people who also are men and women of God and believe in the same things we do, so, it’s kind of like the perfect storm of trying to heal.”

COVENANT FAMILIES ADOPT MORE THAN 70 DOGS SINCE SHOOTING

One less expected outcome is that the families have also adopted a lot of dogs. Sullivan said getting a family dog was one of the first recommendations of a counseling group that showed up to help after the shooting.

“We have seen over 70 dog adoptions since March, my family included,” Sullivan said.

The Presbyterian minister graduated from seminary in 1999, the same year as the Columbine shooting, and said a scenario like this was not part of his training. He has been learning on the go.

“What we’ve been dealing with is just how to do school again, how to be myself, how to feel relaxed at school. What do I do when I’m freaking out? What was that loud noise?” he said.

One of his morning routines is to park at the far end of the lot and walk all the way through it to the school “because, invariably several times a week, there’s a kid who just can’t handle it, who’s melting down in the parking lot, doesn’t want to go in the building.”

Sullivan said he has been told by his fellow teachers that his presence is like a security blanket for the children, in part because his is the first voice they hear at school every morning, welcoming them to chapel.

“So, you know, I kind of never take a sick day. I have not taken a sick day since everything happened, but I just try to just kind of be here as a presence and a voice,” he said.

‘IS THERE BASEBALL IN HEAVEN?’ AND OTHER QUESTIONS ABOUT LOST CLASSMATES

In addition to morning chapel, Sullivan also teaches Bible study where he says the class that lost three students has become “very tender to my heart.” Surprisingly few of the children have transferred to other schools, he said. “So a lot of them have gone deeper here, which is really sweet.”

“We have had some of the best conversations,” he said. “There are some really good questions about heaven. You know, ‘What do you think Will is doing right now?’ and ‘Is there baseball in heaven?’ Because Will loved baseball.”

“I say there’s a lot of it,” Sullivan said. “There’s as much as Will wants — more than he can handle.”

Not all Covenant families agree on gun issues. But in addition to his work with the children, Sullivan said he has supported a group of parents that have become vocal supporters of firearm safety as they have tried to make their voices heard at the state Capitol. It’s an experience he describes as being “like a very long nightmare where you’re screaming for help and nobody’s coming.”

One of those parents is Melissa Alexander, who has one child at Covenant and another who graduated the year before the shooting. She said about 60 parents are involved in the effort that included 40 days over the summer where some of the parents prayed on the Capitol steps every day.

“There are people I work with at legislature who I never knew before, and now some of them are my best friends,” Alexander said. “We confide in one another. We lean on one another. We support one another, because we know what it’s like to be in this spot.”

Asked whether her family also adopted a dog, she laughed and said, “Oh yeah! We got a reject chihuahua named Aster.” Chihuahuas don't typically make great comfort dogs, she said, but her son bonded with Aster, and he joined the family.

School will be out on Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the shooting, but Covenant will hold a modified chapel service for those families who wish to attend, Sullivan said.

“I’m kind of holding my breath right now because we’re at the cusp of this anniversary and it’s kind of, I feel like we’re all just waiting to see how we do,” he said.

Then in a few weeks, they will move from their temporary location back into their old school building. Some families will leave for other schools.

“They stayed here as long as they could,” he said, but “they don’t want to be on that campus.”

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP's collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

FILE - Children from The Covenant School, a private Christian school in Nashville, Tenn., hold hands as they are taken to a reunification site at the Woodmont Baptist Church after a deadly shooting at their school on March 27, 2023. Nearly a year after the shooting that left three adults and three children dead, the students and their families have formed tight bonds out of their shared suffering. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise, file)

Credit: AP

icon to expand image

Credit: AP

Chaplain Matthew Sullivan spends time with his dog Hank after coming home from work at The Covenant School Friday, March 22, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. Nearly a year after a shooting at the christian elementary school that left six dead, many of the school's families have adopted dogs in dealing with their shared suffering. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Credit: AP

icon to expand image

Credit: AP

Chaplain Matthew Sullivan spends time with his dog Hank after coming home from work at The Covenant School Friday, March 22, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. Nearly a year after a shooting at the christian elementary school that left six dead, many of the school's families have adopted dogs in dealing with their shared suffering. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Credit: AP

icon to expand image

Credit: AP

The Covenant School Chaplain Matthew Sullivan looks through stored personal items as a volunteer works to get a school room ready, Friday, March 22, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. Facing the first anniversary of a tragic shooting which left six people dead, the school, which has been meeting in a temporary location, prepares to move back into it's building. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Credit: AP

icon to expand image

Credit: AP

Chaplain of The Covenant School Matthew Sullivan stands in the school's church sanctuary where he lead chapel service in the past, Friday, March 22, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. Facing the first anniversary of a tragic shooting which left six people dead, the school, which has been meeting in a temporary location, prepares to move back into it's building which is connected to the church. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Credit: AP

icon to expand image

Credit: AP

Chaplain Matthew Sullivan spends time with his dog Hank after coming home from work at The Covenant School Friday, March 22, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. Nearly a year after a shooting at the christian elementary school that left six dead, many of the school's families have adopted dogs in dealing with their shared suffering. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Credit: AP

icon to expand image

Credit: AP

Chaplain Matthew Sullivan spends time with his dog Hank after coming home from work at The Covenant School Friday, March 22, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. Nearly a year after a shooting at the christian elementary school that left six dead, many of the school's families have adopted dogs in dealing with their shared suffering. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Credit: AP

icon to expand image

Credit: AP

FILE - Covenant School mother, Melissa Alexander, wipes her eye as she engages in a prayer service leading up to a special session of the state legislature before a news conference at the state capitol, July 20, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Nearly a year after a shooting at a Christian elementary school in Nashville that left three adults and three children dead, the students and their families have formed tight bonds out of their shared suffering. (AP Photo/John Amis, file)

Credit: AP

icon to expand image

Credit: AP