Content Warning: This article contains details relating to the April 30 shooting at UNC Charlotte and the April 27 shooting at Poway Synagogue.
On the morning of April 30, 2019, Dr. Barbara Thiede was concerned. She was thinking about the Poway synagogue shooting that had occurred three days earlier in California. One person died and three more were injured. As a Teaching Professor and the Director of Graduate Studies for UNC Charlotte’s Department of Religious Studies, Dr. Thiede often taught courses on Antisemitism and the Hebrew Bible.
On the way to the University, she turned to her husband and said, “I'm thinking about not ever teaching this course again because I'm finding myself increasingly frightened about whether I am putting both my students and myself at risk from right-wing extremists who could get onto our campus with a gun in a minute flat.”
After class that day, she met with a student to talk about graduate programs. Her office, located in the Macy building, has a distinct view of the oldest building on campus: Kennedy. The scene was normal, the same as every other day. After the meeting, she walked to her car and picked up her husband. Five minutes after leaving campus, she received an alert from UNC Charlotte’s Live Safe App. It was just after 5:40 p.m. There had been a shooting on campus.
More is known now than in those tense moments directly after the UNC Charlotte community was told to “Run, Hide, Fight.” At around 5:40 p.m., a twenty-two year old former student fired into an anthropology classroom in the Kennedy building. Two students, Reed Parlier and Riley Howell, were killed. Four others, Drew Pescaro, Sean DeHart, Emily Houpt and Rami Al-Ramadhan, were hospitalized. It was senseless violence with no political or religious motivation. Still, the attack was not random; it was planned. Later that year, the shooter was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, four counts of attempted murder and one count of discharging a firearm on school property. UNC Charlotte’s Chancellor named April 30 the “saddest day in UNC Charlotte history.” In the aftermath, professors across campus have had to navigate their own personal recovery, the complexities of teaching about related topics in the classroom and how to move forward into the future.
When Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies Lecturer Jon C. Pope first heard the news, his reaction was “initial shock and [an] immediate sense of loss. In part because I was hyper-aware of the need to shield my children from perceiving my workplace as dangerous, I acutely sensed just how it suddenly seemed so dangerous and alien to me,” he said.
Kathleen Nicolaides, Director of the Legal Studies Minor, felt similarly: “total disbelief.” She “didn’t have the visual” and couldn’t imagine a shooting happening at UNC Charlotte. Even less so in the Kennedy Building, where she had attended teacher training events. Both professors were no longer on campus when it occurred.
As Dr. Thiede continued her drive home, she was torn. “It felt kind of strange to be both driving away from campus and emotionally and mentally be driving towards campus because that's how it felt to me. We were physically moving in one direction. Every other aspect of my brain, my body, my heart, my soul was moving the other direction,” she said.
The ways professors coped and recovered varied and were often intensely personal. Pope did not attend the University-sponsored vigil on May 1 as “large gatherings like that just aren’t often what works best for my own well-being.”
He turned to landscaping instead. “I spent the summer building a tranquility pond and waterfall and peace garden in my backyard, a meditative space to seek quiet and remind myself to strive always to help my students feel safe and listened to. And while I worked on it, I often thought of Reed and Riley and how short life can be, but how meaningful too if you live it creatively, generously and courageously as they both did,” he said.
Thiede used writing as an outlet, composing a lament based off of the Book of Lamentations and posting on her blog.
Nicolaides participated in active shooter response training.
Active shooter response training is a program offered through UNC Charlotte Police and Public Safety. It includes presentations as well as a simulation component. Nicolaides recommends the experience, as “it’s like being in the classroom. You need the hands-on learning.”
Dr. Thiede has taken the training four times now and sets aside time for her classes to take the training. “Ten percent of our community has had this training. Only ten percent. I have to be part of the process of helping us prepare,” she explains.
When the University returned to classes in the fall of 2019, many professors found themselves covering topics with subject material related to the shooting. Melissa Wilson, Part-Time Instructor in the Department of Philosophy, said “I cut all of my videos in Critical Thinking and Philosophy of Criminal Law that had to do with guns and shootings. Not to push it under the rug, but to allow students to be the ones to bring it up, rather than myself. If they bring it up, I gently and briefly engage [since] I don’t know the personal circumstances of everyone in the room and don’t want to trigger without warnings.”
She indicated that this may change in the future. If so, she would “dictate that [shootings and guns] will be a discussion possibility on the first and second days of class and then people can choose if they want to remain in the class -- informed consent, basically. And I would also provide warnings before specific classes if I’m planning on bringing up the subject,” she said.
Dr. Diane Zablotsky, Associate Professor of Sociology, has always covered gun violence as part of her course “Death, Dying and Bereavement.” Prior to teaching, she includes a disclaimer about her own personal feelings on the subject. Then, as discussion opens up, she is "able to monitor the classroom and see people's facial expressions" to gauge the feelings of the class. This is no longer possible due to the distance learning mandated by the COVID-19 crisis.
Professors also continue to wrestle with the complexities of moving forward as a university; how should the University remember and respond to what happened on April 30?
Pope said, “I thought that the Niner Nation Remembrance Commission did an outstanding job of offering meaningful recommendations for both remembering and moving forward. Their suggestions for multiple modes of remembrance — the permanent memorial, permanent memorial exhibits, the Day of Remembrance, oral histories — will allow Niners to interface this shared history in whatever way best suits them, both communally and individually.”
He also noted that he’s adopted a more “service-oriented, public writing pedagogy” in his writing courses. “It’s one thing to talk about the shooting, campus safety, Reed and Riley, and so on in class — that can certainly be very meaningful and cathartic — but to be fully invested in how our campus heals and grows sometimes requires that we do something; that we try to effect some kind of change,” he said.
Dr. Thiede stated, “I have very mixed feelings about this. You want to remember? Then throw your money towards the kind of research that we need to do in gun violence. Throw every effort into the active understanding and prevention of gun violence...I'm not interested in remembrance without active commitment to change.”
Nicolaides expressed support for the Niner Nation Remembrance Commission’s proposals. She’d like to see the Kennedy building reopened, as she wants “to go to teacher training there. I want to teach a class in that room. One thing I've taken away from this is that even with the tragedy, it has brought us closer together as a community,” she said. “I do not want that day to define UNC Charlotte. And I don't want that perpetrator to have the upper hand over any of us, especially those who were most impacted.”