In aftermath of UNC shooting, a generation confronts a legacy of school lockdowns

A day after a three-hour lockdown terrified the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, some students milled about in small groups, chatting softly. A handful blew bubbles. Others stopped to write with chalk on the brick sidewalk.

“Heel strong,” “You are loved” and “Stop gun violence” said the messages in bright blue, purple and yellow chalk.

It was in sharp contrast to Monday, when police searched for a gunman from just after 1 p.m. until after 4 p.m. Then the lockdown was lifted with a final alert: “All clear. All clear. Resume normal activities.” Students emerging from their hiding places to learn that police had arrested a graduate student who allegedly shot and killed a physics professor at an on-campus lab.

In some ways, the threat at UNC on Monday was all too familiar to students. They have grown up in an era in which active shooter drills are commonplace in schools and hundreds of students have died in school shootings since 2000. They are called the “lockdown generation.”

“It’s been weird, to say the least, that we have to dedicate a part of our childhood and growing up to learning how to be safe” in situations like Monday’s, Alyssa Knott, a junior math major at UNC, told The News & Observer on Tuesday.

Their generation has had to deal with heightened gun violence in recent years, with the firearm homicide rate increasing nearly 35% in 2020, reaching its highest level since 1994. Disparities by race, ethnicity and poverty level have widened, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The highest rates and increases were observed among those ages 10–24, according to the CDC.

The peak of gun murder rates came in the 1970s, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Gun suicide rates today are on par with their historical peak.

UNC Charlotte shooting in 2019

For Elaine Jimenez, a journalism student, who grew up in North Carolina, the lockdown on Monday was reminiscent of shooting drills she’s had to partake in since elementary school.

She said that in those drills “at first I didn’t really grasp the concept that someone could come into our school” but as she got older and heard of multiple shootings, including at a Parkland, Florida, high school shooting in 2018, “that’s when it got real, like it could happen anywhere.”

Jimenez said her sister was at the UNC Charlotte shooting in 2019, which occurred on the last day of classes and left two people dead.

“I was always on high alert, but it just, I really didn’t think in my second year of college that would happen,” Jimenez said.

“It just feels very surreal,” said her roommate, Katherine Bailon, who was walking with her through campus on Tuesday. She had been stuck in Dey Hall throughout the lockdown. That is next to Caudill Labs, where the shooting victim was found.

Different experiences and different reactions

Avery Cook, the director of Counseling and Psychological Services at UNC, said that following a traumatic event, everyone’s reaction is different and “it’s going to depend on what your history and experience has been.”

“If you were a student that has perhaps had a previous experience with something like this, either with lockdown drills or with a shooting event, that’s going to impact you differently than if you’re a student that hasn’t had that experience,” she said.

“All 30,000-some odd students ... each one of them has had a different experience and a different reaction to this.”

UNC has added some mental health resources after the shooting, in addition to the traditional services offered.

William Vance, a chemistry and biology junior who had just transferred from Appalachian State University, was asked about the prevalence of gun violence in his life. “It’s kind of weird because to me, it’s so, like, normal now,” he said.

Vance was at the Robert B. House Undergraduate Library in central campus when he heard sirens Monday. He first thought it was a fire, but as he was going down the library stairs, he saw “hundreds of people coming into the building.”

“So I’m ... looking at my left and right and eventually I get the student notification.”

He and a large group of students and others huddled together at the bottom floor of the library, he said. There they waited out the next three hours, tuning into police broadcasts and the news to “put the pieces together.”

“It doesn’t feel like it (a shooting) could happen again today,” Vance said. “But it could, and that’s ... a scary thing. It seems like everyone’s so desensitized to it.”

Joe Fearrington, 61, works in housekeeping at UNC. He said he was by Phillips Hall, a 5 minute walk from the lab, when the alert came out. He said he helped usher about 25 students into nearby buildings, waiting until the area had cleared out before going himself into safety alongside others at the Blue Ram Cafe convenience store nearby.

Once in the snack bar, he locked up the doors, including shutting one with a cord. He said that the door was supposed to close automatically via the security system but did not.

Heavily armed North Carolina State Troopers walk down South Road toward the Bell Tower on the University of North Carolina campus after a report of an armed and dangerous person on Monday, August 28. 2023 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Heavily armed North Carolina State Troopers walk down South Road toward the Bell Tower on the University of North Carolina campus after a report of an armed and dangerous person on Monday, August 28. 2023 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

‘Just a life of vigilance’

Fearrington, who worked 20 years in security prior to joining UNC, said he was able to stay calm because of this.

“You never know what to expect,” he said. “That’s the world we’re living in.”

The university, he said, “needs to work on some drills around here on keeping students safe and the staff.”

For Danielle Kennedy, a freshman from Apex majoring in computer science, the first alert she got to shelter in place on Monday made her immediately think back to another lockdown she went through in high school just four months earlier.

“I was immediately into just preparation mode, like just getting ready to text people that I knew were on campus, getting ready to text my family to let them know what was going on,” Kennedy said.

Before moving to North Carolina, Kennedy lived in Pittsburgh. She was there in 2018 when a gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Congregation.

Growing up with gun violence never seeming like it’s too far away has shaped the way people her age experience the world, she said.

“To live under a constant threat of public shootings, it’s become just a life of vigilance,” Kennedy said.

The K–12 lockdown

The effects of the UNC shooting went beyond the campus borders.

Monday was also the first day of classes for many students across the state, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools spent much of the afternoon in a lockdown. The schools entered “secure” mode, meaning that instruction continued but school doors were closed and locked. No one was allowed to enter or leave.

A spokesperson for the school system told The N&O that the superintendent made the decision to put all of the elementary, middle and high schools in secure mode.

“In a moment like that, one described as involving an ‘armed, dangerous person,’ ‘ongoing’ with a ‘suspect at large,’ we don’t know who that person may be, or where they may be. So, as a precaution, we followed our emergency action plan,” said Andy Jenks, spokesperson.

Messages were sent to parents at 1:45 p.m., 2:15 p.m., 3 p.m. and 3:40 p.m., with the first message telling families about the “secure mode” status and alert at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The 2:15 p.m. update warned of significant delays for bus riders that afternoon, and that: “As a safety precaution, schools have been directed not to release students to their families at this time.”

The final message as 3:40 p.m., more than an hour after elementary school days usually end, was an “all clear.” Because school buses take elementary school students home first, they had to circle back for older students, who didn’t get home until more than an hour later than usual.

Parent Nikolai Hayes, 35, who has a 6-year-old son, learned about what was going on Monday through a phone call from the school. She said she felt her son was safe because he was inside and not on the campus but “it was a little nerve-wracking and pretty scary. I just wanted to get my baby out of school.”

“The world is scary. It’s been scary,” said Hayes, who said she had been in a lockdown at East Chapel Hill High School in 2006, when a teen student fired a shotgun twice during a hostage standoff.

‘It’s part of their reality’

The United States has the highest rate of child and teen firearm mortality among similarly large, wealthy countries. In 2020 and 2021, firearms also contributed to more deaths in U.S. children ages 1-17 than any other type of injury and illness, according to an analysis by KFF of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources.

North Carolina ranks above the nationwide rates of child and teen firearm mortality.

Hayes said gun violence is becoming more common and “we just have to talk to them, we have to grow our kids up sooner.” She said she had not told her 6-year-old son about the shooting as he is special needs and would not understand, but had helped tell her niece about the news.

“As terrible as it is, it’s part of their reality. And it’s something they should be aware of and know why they’re being held,” Hayes said.

Jenks, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools spokesperson, said the degree to which K-12 students knew details of what was happening at UNC varied by level.

“For the most part, classroom instruction continued normally. But then the delay extended beyond the normal dismissal time,” he said. Elementary staff generally created safe spaces like “get to know you” time, he said, without directly mentioning the unfolding situation.

“At the middle and high school levels, it’s more reasonable to assume that students — many of whom carry phones — would have a greater awareness of the information as it unfolded, in some cases due to intercom announcements, or hallway instructions, or phone notifications — messages from parents, siblings, local news, social media, etc.,” he said.

People hold signs during a student-led rally at UNC-Chapel Hill in support of gun control on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. A graduate student has been charged with first-degree murder following a Monday shooting that left physics professor Zijie Yan dead on the university’s campus.
People hold signs during a student-led rally at UNC-Chapel Hill in support of gun control on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. A graduate student has been charged with first-degree murder following a Monday shooting that left physics professor Zijie Yan dead on the university’s campus.

Parent Michael Venutolo-Mantovani, who has a son in elementary school and a daughter in child care across Chapel Hill, said he and his wife “were 99% sure that our babies were OK” but that “the town is bisected by the campus, so not being able to get to our son was ... not a pleasant experience.”

Venutolo-Mantovani said he grew up in the 1990s when a shooting like Columbine, “was an anomaly. And now it’s become commonplace.”

He said he and his wife talked to their son about the shooting, sparing details on the death.

”Now that I have babies growing up in this environment, it’s something my wife and I have to reckon with.”

“Obviously the fear of school shootings is real in America, and to have them in a lockdown on his very first day of kindergarten just kind of amplified the American experience,” he said.