In the wake of the shooting at a private religious school in Nashville, Tennessee, that left three children and three adults dead, some leaders of religious schools in North Carolina feel uneasy about the safety of their own schools.

Adding more pressure, anti-school choice forces continue to mount a social media campaign targeting specific private schools in the state and calling them out for their religious beliefs. Some private school leaders worry that such targeting could lead to violence.

“It’s something we should be careful about in light of what happened in Nashville — that we are not targeting schools, whether they’re Christian or not,” said Dr. Dawn Baldwin Gibson, superintendent of Peletah Academic Center for Excellence, a private religious school in New Bern, in an interview with Carolina Journal. “We need to be mindful of that level of antagonizing that you clearly see.”

Dr. Dawn Baldwin Gibson

Gibson said they have removed all the signage from the front of the school for safety reasons. They have also fenced in the rear of the school, hired extra security, and had the local sheriff do a walkthrough of the school to assess safety.

“The people targeting these schools need to understand that there may be consequences that none of us want to see and none of us want to pay,” Gibson said.

Officials haven’t released a specific motive for the Nashville shooting on March 27, but it’s clear that the perpetrator, 28-year old Audrey Hale, had a vendetta against the school and the church associated with it. 

Hale fired 152 rounds while on the school property before police shot and killed her. There was evidence she had planned the shooting for months in advance. From her social media profiles, Hale seemed to identify as transgender in the months leading up to the attack.

The Covenant School is part of Covenant Presbyterian Church in the Nashville area. The church is associated with the Presbyterian Church in America, a theologically conservative branch of the denomination.

Meanwhile in North Carolina, anti-school choice activists have been tweeted out the names of private schools that have traditional Christian theology and religious beliefs on issues like human sexuality.

Anti-school choice forces have ramped up their rhetoric in recent months as the General Assembly is poised to pass a significant expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The scholarship program empowers families who wish to send their child to a private to have the means to do so.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has made Opportunity Scholarships a target of his bully pulpit as well. This week, Cooper declared a statewide emergency due to what he termed a lack of investment in K-12 public education. He accused Republicans of “handing out private school vouchers to millionaires.”

Gibson and her husband, Pastor Anthony Gibson, created Peletah Academic Center for Excellence in 2017 after they worked on a racial reconciliation conference in New Bern. They determined that education was a big area for improvement. The private school is trauma-informed, Gibson said, and is one of the few private schools in the state certified by the Department of Public Instruction with an exceptional education program.

Gibson called the Opportunity Scholarship Program “a game changer” for the families enrolled in the school.

“It’s really been about leveling the playing field,” she said.

Tuition at Peletah is $6,300 a year for K-12. Under the proposed expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, qualifying families would have 100% of that tuition covered.

That tuition rate is about half the amount the average public school spends per student. For fiscal year 2021-2022, the average price tag for each public school student was $12,345. That’s up from $10,753 the previous year.