By Adam Powell
Michelle Cassell, Managing Editor, contributed to this article
The Town of Chapel Hill was shocked by two recent gun violence incidents on the University of North Carolina campus. The first was a shooting that killed Associate Professor Zijie Yan and prompted a campus and city-wide lockdown. A week later, another incident resulted in another lockdown, with no shots fired. In both cases, suspects are in custody.
Consequently, much attention has been drawn to how the assailants moved around campus and could engage their victims without much resistance.
The Local Reporter sent an inquiry to the Chancellor’s office regarding a petition from students and private citizens in late September asking the university to take immediate action to establish clear steps for responding to an active shooter on campus. The petition on change.org now has over 1,491 signatures.
The petition demands that UNC take immediate steps to improve responses to active shooter alerts. They demand that faculty members receive mandatory training on responding appropriately during an active shooter situation. They asked that every classroom, including lecture halls, be equipped with secure locking mechanisms, and substantial enhancements to the Alert Carolina communication system be installed.
In response, via UNC-Chapel Hill Media Relations, the Chancellor’s office pledged to “examine our policies and procedures and determine what improvements can be made.”
What has UNC done to improve its response?
When asked on Monday if they had explicitly addressed each issue, UNC-Chapel Hill Media Relations released the following statement:
“As with any major incident or emergency on campus, University teams are currently reviewing lessons learned and feedback from our campus community. This will help us as we examine our policies and procedures and determine what improvements can be made.
“In 2018, Facilities Services launched a classroom door lock initiative to provide additional security in campus classrooms. While locks already did exist in campus classrooms, most were external key locks only. Adding additional hardware provided the option to lock classrooms from the inside, or lock doors automatically when closed.
“The project’s first phase was completed in June 2019, with lock installation in all campus general-purpose classrooms having an occupancy of 50 students or more, for a total of 529 classrooms completed.
“The second phase of the lock upgrade process focused on 185 classrooms with occupancy of 25-49 students, which was completed in June 2023. The third phase focused on 224 classrooms with occupancy of 10-24 students, which was completed in early September 2023.
“Classrooms on campus are equipped with a QR code that can be scanned with a mobile device to link faculty and instructors with classroom preparedness materials, including instructions on how to use classroom door locks.”
Can gun violence on campus be prevented?
What more, if anything, could UNC have done to make the campus safer and prevent the tragedies that occurred?
DISCLAIMER : Mr. Joseph Stewart is a former law enforcement officer, trainer, and active shooter response instructor. The Local Reporter does not endorse or encourage the use of East Wind Consulting, LLC. We see him as an expert qualified to make statements about response to active shooter scenarios.
“While I think that keeping armed people off the campus is of the highest priority, a college campus like UNC is akin to a small city,” said Joseph M. Stewart, owner and CEO of East Wind Consulting LLC, a local firm that assists private companies and local municipalities on active shooter training. Stewart was one of the responders to the original petition.
“Doing any more than what is being done now would mean armed guards and metal detectors, which I fear would create an environment that is antithetical to what makes UNC such an awesome place.”
Despite the relative safety of UNC, Stewart says that college campuses and other public spaces are well served to understand the thinking of a would-be shooter better and to have a similar plan to offset a shooter’s often organized and well-thought-out intentions.
“The goal of an honest critique is to identify what went well and what could be improved. The point is to learn and improve,” Stewart said. “Being able to learn from real-world incidents is critical to being ready for the next one.”
Stewart indicated that once we accept that there is a risk, we need to control two key things – time and access.
“The side that does this the best will always prevail,” he said.
“Virtually always, the attacker will walk into the building with a well-laid plan…. If you want to overcome that attack, you need a plan of your own. That plan has to outline strategies for four major elements: prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.” said Stewart.
In practical terms, he explains that means having a common language in emergency response – such as “lock-out” vs. “lock-down” for example – while also having a comprehensive plan for providing students and faculty with relevant, real-time information that they can use to stay calm and make good decisions.
“Simply put, if you want specific responses from a large group of people, you have to include and train them in the plan before you need them to react. You also have to supply them with accurate, real-time information with which to make decisions. As an outsider looking in on both recent UNC incidents, I think that if it were mine to improve, I would start there,” Stewart said.
According to Stewart, communication may be the biggest key to improving outcomes in any live active shooter situation.
Planning for live shooting situations, according to Stewart, involves the institution answering the following questions:
How can we stop it from happening?
What can we do to be ready if we can’t prevent it?
How should we react when it happens?
How do we get back to normal?
“The process of considering all of the options is what allows someone to make smart, effective changes and react to the unexpected. If you aren’t diligent in the process, however, you are unable to access contingency options or figure out how to adapt to a changing environment; both essential if you want to survive as an individual or as an institution,” he explained.
In Stewart’s experience, this also means sharing and communicating that plan with everyone the plan affects.
“If you want someone to react to a critical incident in a way that fits with the overall response, you must communicate this to them before there is a crisis,” he said.
“Think about some of the things we saw with UNC during the August 28 incident…. 50,000+ people across 46 buildings and just under 750 acres were thrown into a panic, jumping out of windows, and hiding under their desks for 3 hours at a time. I had a friend on campus who sat barricaded in her office afraid to leave to go to the bathroom, while students elsewhere reported that their professors never stopped teaching,” said Stewart.
“I say this not to call out UNC, but critiquing a response provides an opportunity to learn. An institution like UNC preparing for an active shooter event cannot afford an unmeasured response that throws many people into an unnecessary level of panic when they are not in direct jeopardy.”
Stewart explains that the next step – and perhaps equally as important as communication – is having prevention and deterrence measures in place.
“When it comes to active shooter, we win 100 percent of the fights we avoid. That means Threat Assessment and Threat Management,” Stewart said.
“Essentially, this is where the public reports suspicious behavior and a team of professionals from multiple disciplines – law enforcement, psychology, prosecutor’s office, etc. – use that information to identify potential shooters early and take steps to divert them from violence.”
“While it’s not perfect, the FBI has shown it to be highly effective in stopping many of these incidents before they happen,” he continued. “The techniques were pioneered by the United States Secret Service to protect Presidents and government officials and were later adapted to protect schools.”
Modern technologies, in the form of phone applications and other real-time communications platforms, can help minimize panic and reinstitute a calming presence once a crisis has been effectively neutralized.
UNC uses Alert Carolina, which was in place and active during the recent incidents. According to UNC-Chapel Hill Media, that is one of the resources they are reviewing.
Another strategy Stewart recommends for civilians entering public spaces and any area where a potential shooting could occur is to be aware of one’s surroundings and not to be so immersed in your phone that you’re not able to react quickly to changing circumstances.
Rather than advocating living in fear, Stewart endorses a philosophy of reality, preparation, and awareness.
“Accepting the reality of active shooter before an incident occurs allows you to observe your surroundings accurately, recognize warning signs, and spot real threats early. It even prompts you to think through some basic “what if” scenarios,” he said.
“Having training and equipment that can allow you to stabilize a wound on yourself or someone else can increase the amount of time first responders have to get to you and effect a rescue.”
UNC’s effort to improve active shooter response is ongoing
UNC offers information about Active Shooter and Critical Incident Response on the UNC Police Website. The UNC-Chapel Hill Media Relations said UNC Police facilitated this training for 1,200 community members.
“Active Shooter and Critical Incident Response training is provided at request for any department/organization on campus. UNC Police regularly provides this training for the Chemistry Department TAs, Student Union staff, UNC Library staff, Makerspace staff, and the School of Medicine PA program,” UNC-Chapel Hill Media Relations wrote.
“Analyzing any needed updates concerning campus safety is a process that is currently underway,” according to the UNC Media statement on Monday.
“As part of this process, the University distributed a feedback portal to the Carolina Community in September to gather input and feedback about the August 28 incident. University officials are currently processing the results needed to inform any possible changes to processes and safety measures as we move forward.”
UNC-Chapel Hill Media Relations said, “Another part of the post-emergency process is an after-action report, which is standard for all emergency situations on campus and is currently in process. This report is also needed in order to make decisions about any necessary changes.