The other first responders: Covenant shooting victim advocates describe devastating day

Tennessee was among the first states to adopt an immediate response to survivors mass violence events, first activated minutes after the mass shooting

By: - April 18, 2023 9:03 am
A man walks his daughter from a school near Nashville's Covenant School on March 27, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A man walks his daughter from a school near Nashville’s Covenant School on March 27, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Valerie Craig was between appointments, in her car, when she got the call: there had been a shooting reported at The Covenant School minutes before, District Attorney Glen Funk told her. He was on his way. A family assistance center was being set up at Woodmont Baptist Church.

Funk’s call to Craig, cofounder of Tennessee Voices Victims, set in motion a carefully crafted plan to activate the other first responders to the shooting — those focused exclusively on the needs of victims and their families. 

Tennessee was among the earliest adopters of so-called Mass Violence Victim Response protocols, created in the wake of previous tragedies like the 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting that killed 58 people, injured 500 and sent thousands more scattering to nearly a dozen makeshift meeting points – a chaotic aftermath that also compounded survivors’ trauma.

The Tennessee Mass Violence Advisory Council was created in 2020 to avoid such scenarios in Tennessee, creating protocols that ultimately guided the victim response to The Covenant School shooting last month.

The purpose of having protocols in place is “to take away the chaos and crisis,” said Jennifer Brinkman, director of the state’s Office of Criminal Justice Programs.

“As horrible as it is, to help victims in crisis you really need to have plans in place,” she said. “We’re one of the few that has that here, not just the law enforcement response. We have a plan in place for victim response.”

On March 27, in the minutes after three children and three adults were killed at The Covenant School, the victim response plan was activated.

At least 40 people from multiple agencies — at the scene and in support roles — arrived equipped with crayons and paper, stuffed animals and fidget toys, gum and water. They canceled all counseling appointments, marshaled resources and coordinated federal funding for an immediate victim response.  

The following account of how the victim response unfolded that day comes from Brinkman, Craig, Kimberly Page and Amy Griffith-Taylor with the city’s Family Intervention Center, and spokespersons for Funk and the Metro Nashville Police Department.

The first calls

Funk was notified immediately about the shooting from a top official with Metro Police after the first 911 calls came in starting at 10:13 a.m. 

Funk along with Deputy District Attorney Roger Moore and a top investigator sped to the scene, calling Craig at about the same time the shooter had been taken down. Police said that occurred at 10:27 a.m.

Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk, (Photo: John Partipilo)
Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk, (Photo: John Partipilo)

Craig, still in her car, quickly reached Verna Wyatt, Voices for Children cofounder, who — in turn — contacted Brinkman. 

Many of the counselors and advocates who needed to respond have jobs that are funded by federal grants that limit their activities. Other federal funds to cover the cost of counselors’ time needed to be immediately tapped, too — behind-the-scenes bureaucratic actions that nevertheless are critical to freeing victim counselors and advocates to respond.

While Brinkman worked with the federal government on funding questions, Craig and Wyatt had more calls to make. Craig’s second call of the day was to the Metro Nashville Police’s Family Services Center.

Staff at the Family Service Center provide free counseling and other services to victims of violence in Nashville. Their days are busy with counseling appointments — last year they provided more than 6,000 individual and group sessions.  They also respond to crime scenes to provide an immediate victim crisis response. On any given day, one counselor is always on call to be able to respond to victims’ needs.

The first reports about the Covenant shooting made clear that more personnel would be required than one on-call counselor.

Page and Griffin-Taylor first began tapping counselors who were not already in a counseling sessions to go to the site. Then they pulled counselors conducting group sessions.  Soon, however, they realized the whole team would be needed. They canceled all appointments so every available counselor — 10 or 11, they said — could head to the scene. One employee and two interns were left behind to take calls. 

As the victim response was being activated, Midtown Hills Precinct Commander Dayton Wheeler was talking with the staff at Woodmont Baptist Church to establish a family resources center — a place for children, teachers and staff away the crime scene. Metro police personnel also contacted Metro Nashville Public Schools to send school buses to transport children, teachers and staff from Covenant to the church.  

By 11:17, police had cleared the way for victim responders — from the Family Intervention Center, Voices for Victims and elsewhere — to get to the church’s reception area to coordinate with each other. By 11:30 a.m. the entire victim crisis team was in place.

Inside Woodmont Baptist Church

Victim responders described their work at Woodmont Baptist that day in general terms. 

Inside the church, children remained with their teachers on the lower floor of the building. Parents and siblings of Covenant students gathered upstairs in the church’s sanctuary. 

Upstairs, the counselors, advocates and volunteers got to work; one created a spreadsheet to track parent information and check ID’s — information that would be used to reunify parents with their children and for follow-up in the days, weeks and months after the shooting.

“You have parents who are super anxious, so helping them stay calm and have the information they need is what you need to do,” Craig said of the initial response. “We are also clarifying where are the parents who might be getting information about the deceased.”

Strictly speaking, no counseling work is provided at the scene, only support — which can take the form of providing water, snacks, serving as a sounding board and validating feelings, said Kimberly Page, division manager for the Family Intervention Program.

“Sometimes people second-guess, say ‘I should have done this or that differently,’” Page said. “We’re letting them know, too, that your brain might not be ready for this and that’s okay.”

Downstairs, “we let the children be children,” Page said. The children remained with their teachers. 

Counselors arrived with stuffed animals, squeeze toys, crayons and paper — and snacks. Teachers wanted gum. Craig had some in her car. 

Later, the responders also had the task of reuniting children with their parents. The reunifications took place in private rooms, with one counselor escorting a child and another escorting a child’s parents and siblings into a room together.

“We had to think: how do we safely and effectively put these families back together,” Craig said. “From checking IDs to figuring out how to put them back together in a room.” 

The entire process took hours. By 3 p.m., more than four hours after the shooting, the last parents and children had been reunited.  “The reality is some parents sat there a long time,” she said. 

By then the Office of Criminal Justice programs had a prepared a resource guide to distribute to parents, teachers and staff — information they may need to seek mental health services, state victim compensation funding and other resources over time.

Teachers and staff last to leave

“After they all left, it was transition time,” Craig said. Food for teachers and staff was brought in, counselors were made available to them and Metro Police and school teachers and staff held a briefing.

Woodmont Baptist is a little over two miles from The Covenant School.  At the end of the day, the victim responders worked to coordinate transportation of The Covenant School staff back to their cars, in the school parking lot. 

The victim response has continued since the day of the shooting. Days afterward, responders helped sort belongings retrieved from inside the school — purses, keys, wallets, the contents of lockers — and return them to their owners. The spreadsheet they created with the names of parents and teachers is used to follow up to provide services to those who want them. They have worked with families through the first Easter after the shooting and through six funerals, Craig said.

“This is a marathon,” Craig said.  More than two years after a Christmas Day bombing in downtown Nashville forced terrified residents to flee — and some to lose their homes — responders are still meeting to talk over ongoing victim needs, she said.

The victim response to The Covenant School shooting may take even more time, she said. 

For the responders, who are all trained in national mass violence response, there is also the need to recover. Staff at the Family Intervention Center have been given a day to work remotely, while counselors have been brought in to help anyone needing one. They’ve also gotten some outside help: a massage therapist who learned about their work in the Covenant Shooting has come in two weeks in a row to provide free 25-minute table massages. A yoga studio has stepped up to offer free classes.

“They take care of the citizens and people of Nashville,” Page said. “They also need to practice self-care.”

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.