Survivors of A Mass Killing Face Another in Nashville

Photo for The Washington Post by Johnnie Izquierdo
Hundreds gather at the citywide candlelight vigil for victims of the Covenant School shooting.

NASHVILLE – Shaundelle Brooks was getting ready for lunch Monday when her 17-year-old sent her a text: His school was on lockdown because of an active shooter nearby. The news left Brooks, who lost another son in the 2018 Waffle House mass killing, shaking.

“I’m like, ‘What is going on here, God?’ This cannot be happening again,” Brooks said.

Ashbey Beasley was vacationing nearby with her 7-year-old. Her family had survived a mass killing at Highland Park’s Independence Day parade less than a year ago. When she heard the news of this shooting, panic rose in her chest.

“I was just in shock, like, what?” she said.

Joylyn Bukovac was working as a local TV reporter when she was sent to cover the violence at the Covenant School, which left six people, including three 9-year-olds, dead. Hours later, while live on air, she revealed that she is a school shooting survivor herself.

“A lot of this is really bringing up a lot of tough memories for me,” Bukovac, 27, said on television. “I was actually in the hallway when the gunman open fired in my school shooting, I was in eighth grade at the time. I can’t even describe the shock.”

This week’s shooting sent a shock wave of pain across this city, as friends and family grappled with once unthinkable grief. It also impacted a small club of people who were in Nashville, near the school – and whose lives had been marked by a mass killing before.

In a nation where there are 67 million more guns than people and gun violence has become the number one killer of children, mass shootings are so common that survivors of one are now sometimes finding themselves impacted by another, offering a devastating portrait of compounding trauma. Since the start of this year, there have been 14 shootings with four or more fatalities, according to a database maintained by Northeastern University, the Associated Press and USA Today.

After a February shooting at Michigan State University, one student survivor revealed that they had also lived through the Sandy Hook massacre as a child. Another had survived the Oxford High School shooting in 2021. A man who survived the 2017 Las Vegas mass killing – the deadliest in modern history – was killed in the Thousand Oaks, Calif., mass killing a year later.

“We shouldn’t have to live like this. We shouldn’t have to live in fear, you know?” said Brooks, 50. “We’re not safe in schools, you’re not safe when you go out to eat at the Waffle House, you’re not safe in church – you’re not safe anywhere.”

When Brooks received her son’s text Monday, it sent her into a tailspin. She took off in her car toward his school, praying for his safety – that he would be alive, and stay that way.

She’d done that drive once before, on April 22, 2018.

In the wee morning hours of that day, she’d gotten a text from one of her sons. There had been a shooting at the fast food restaurant where they’d been hanging out. Brooks rushed to the scene but wasn’t allowed inside. Then an ambulance rolled in front of her, and she saw the body of her son, Akilah Dasilva, lying immobile inside.

“I looked in. I went up. I called his name. He didn’t answer,” she recalled. She was told later at the hospital that her son had been shot and didn’t survive.

“That just pierced my heart,” Brooks said. “You know, that hole that you feel, it was just this instant, something, in my stomach. That’s the worst feeling ever.”

The pit in her stomach grew again as she rushed to her son’s school this week.

Inside, high school junior Aldane was thinking of his late brother, asking: “Is this what you went through?”

“It definitely gave me PTSD and made me, panicking. Putting fear into me,” Aldane said. He was locked in his classroom at the time, while students and educators waited for more information. “I just thought to myself I have to stay calm, keep my head on in case something happens.”

Slowly, more information trickled in. There had been a mass killing, but it was at a different school about a mile away. The shooter was dead. Brooks breathed a sigh of relief, and then drove to the scene of the violence, feeling an immediate pang of empathy for the difficult journey facing those parents and family members.

“I know exactly what they’re feeling at this moment. They’re in that ball,” she said, crouching in fetal position to demonstrate. “That’s the position you’re in for a long time because you just feel like you’re drowning. But you don’t have the energy to save yourself, and pull yourself back up . . . or say you need help.”

Beasley befriended Brooks through their gun control activism, and reached out to her while on vacation in Nashville to meet up. The text from Brooks shortly before they were supposed to have lunch together about the mass killing sent Beasley right back to last Fourth of July, when she and her son were enjoying themselves at the Highland Park parade. Then: pops that sounded like fireworks. People began to run.

“People were wailing, screaming, crying. Some people had blood on them,” she recalled. “My son kept saying ‘What is happening?’ over and over again.”

He was so scared he stopped and laid on the ground in the middle of the commotion, “begging not to die,” she said. She got him up and they rushed home, safe. “Even a couple days after, he grabbed his head and said it was too full of thoughts. And then he puked everywhere.”

She described the whole experience as “a bell you can’t un-ring. You can’t unsee.”

Beasley and her son Beau were in Nashville on vacation, after attending a gun safety rally in Washington, D.C. It was supposed to be a reprieve from the horror of gun violence.

Instead, she found herself rushing to the site of another mass killing to provide support to Brooks, her friend. In front of a scrum of reporters, she gave an impassioned plea for additional gun restriction measures to keep semiautomatic rifles from the hands of mass killers.

“How is this still happening? How are our children still dying and why are we failing them?” she demanded in a video that went viral online.

Beasley had tried to shield Beau from the news of another mass killing. But he found out anyway after seeing it on a relative’s computer. She asked how he felt about it.

“He just said it made him sad,” she said, sighing. “It’s everywhere. What do you do? It’s unavoidable.”

For Bukovac, meanwhile, the scene at the Covenant School was all too familiar. In an NBC News interview, Bukovac described being in the hallway when student Hammad Memon shot and killed a classmate at her Madison, Ala., school and running to hide under the risers of her choir class. The WSMV 4 reporter recalled wanting to call her family, to tell them she loved them.

As she reported this week, “I saw people running, people on their phones, I knew exactly what they were going through because my family was . . . trying to get in contact with me whenever I was hiding,” she said. “Just the shock that moves through your body, I can’t even describe it.”

On Wednesday, wax dripped from Brooks’ candle, the flame flickering as the sun set during the city’s vigil for the shooting victims. So much of it all – the rituals of news coverage, the mourning, the political debate that follow mass killings – reminded her of when Akilah was killed.

She wore a necklace with his name on it and a shirt with his image to the vigil. Lyrics to a song he had written before he died were on the shirt: “Forget about making a hashtag let’s throw the guns in a trash bag.”