Content warning: This article contains sensitive information about the UNC Charlotte shooting.
On April 30, 2019 UNC Charlotte Chief of Police Jeffrey Baker was preparing his officers to work security for the Waka Flocka concert that had been scheduled for the last day of classes. As he headed over to the football stadium, he received a call saying a student had been shot.
“I was expecting it to be a relaxing day,” said Baker.
Instead, a shooter burst into an anthropology class in the Kennedy building just as the students had begun to give their final presentations. Only about half of the 96 students in the class were present that day. Dressed in all black with plastic protective goggles and earplugs, the assailant fired 17 shots indiscriminately until he was tackled to the ground by Riley Howell, 21. When Sgt. Gundacker arrived at the scene, he found four men lying on the floor. When the sergeant asked who the shooter was, the assailant responded, “I am.”
Riley Howell and Ellis “Reed” Parlier, 19, who was presumed to have been shot first, were pronounced dead at the scene. The four injured students, Drew Pescaro, 19, of Apex; Sean DeHart, 20, of Apex; Rami Al-Ramadhan, 20, of Saudi Arabia; and Emily Houpt, 23, of Charlotte, were rushed to the hospital for treatment.
Although school shootings are unfortunately quite common in the United States, for many it was unthinkable that UNC Charlotte would be the victim of one. But not for Police and Public Safety, who had been preparing for such a tragedy long before April 30.
Six months prior, campus security simulated a mass casualty event just like April 30.
“We had actors playing family members and we set the location up and had a whole scenario that we followed. We never envisioned that we would have to actually implement or utilize that plan. And just a few months later we did,” said Director of Emergency Management Chris Gonyar.
The tabletop drill even involved Chancellor Dubois simulating a press conference.
“What's a little haunting to me is that one of the things I said in the rehearsal was, ‘This is the worst day in the history of UNC Charlotte.’ And that in fact is what I said on April 30,” said Dubois.
While simulations like these may seem extreme, mass shootings pose a very real threat to American schools. March 2020 was the first March since 2002 without a school shooting. Other definitions of “school shooting” actually indicate eight school shootings in March 2020, even with nationwide school closures due to COVID-19.
The same month that campus security walked through a mass casualty scenario, the shooter obtained a gun permit online. According to trial testimony, he had been planning the attack since Aug. 2018, taking inspiration from a violent YouTube channel that discussed school shootings. He bought a Model 7 pistol in Dec. 2018 and practiced at a local shooting range for several months afterwards.
State law prohibits the possession of firearms on any UNC System campus. Even still, Chief Baker says, “If a person is intent to do harm, it is really difficult to intervene. What you want to do is make certain that you've done a sufficient amount of training and preparation so that you can respond accordingly.”
Although campus security, law enforcement and first responders possess some of the most intimate and ugliest knowledge about gun violence, their jobs are defensive by nature and typically preclude them from political advocacy.
“We can only respond and react as to what the laws are,” added Baker, who was recently named staff member of the year.
Police and Public Safety continues to do just that: prepare. Under the guidance of Associate Vice Chancellor for Safety and Security John Bogdan, the University has implemented several new programs like the installation of classroom lockdown kits, the development of informational safety videos and the addition of two rangers to the campus light rail stop.
One program that is still pending approval is an expansion of campus surveillance.
“One of the things we realized was that we did not have sufficient coverage in our large, open, high-access areas like the quad from the Student Union to the SAC or the path between Prospector and the library -- areas where we have high concentrations of people all the time. We have outlined multiple areas like that where we are going to put in security cameras to give us better visibility to monitor what's going on there, from a safety perspective,” said Bogdan.
As security ramps up in schools across the nation, systems that allow schools to easily track people have caused some privacy concerns.
“There's nothing we do that [privacy] isn't part of the fabric of how we operate,” said Bogdan.
Despite UNC Charlotte’s emergency preparedness, perhaps the most crucial factor in limiting the harm caused by the shooter that day was the quick and heroic action of Riley Howell, who saved an indeterminate number of people by tackling the shooter.
“There are no words that I can describe other than [Riley] was significant in slowing down the incident and bringing it to an end with his actions,” said Baker.