‘Can You Hear Gunshots?’ Student Texts Reveal Horrors from Inside an Active Shooter Lockdown
An “active shooter” situation is a hell of a way to start a school year — and I do mean hell.
That’s what it was like for students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after associate professor Zijie Yan was fatally shot in a science building on the campus.
Police said they arrested graduate student Tailei Qi, 34, of Chapel Hill without force less than two hours after the shooting. Qi was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder and a weapons count and jailed without bond. Yan was Qi’s faculty adviser, and Qi worked with Yan’s research group.
But the elapsed time felt a lot longer, judging by student accounts that flowed from inside the lockdown zone at the campus. Barely a week after students started the fall semester, they were barricading themselves in classrooms or, in some cases caught by news cameras, jumping out of windows.
To the student journalists at The Daily Tar Heel, the tragedy posed a dilemma that is unfortunately familiar to me and countless other daily journalists: How do we convey the unspeakable horrors of gun-related tragedies to which the public has been desensitized by the seemingly endless repetition of it?
An idea came late Monday night to Emmy Martin, the newspaper’s editor in chief, while she was in bed looking through the text messages and social media posts that she and other students had received during the lockdown.
“And that’s kind of when it hit me,” Martin later told the Poynter Institute. “Everyone was getting these texts, and we were all kind of not having the same experience, but having an experience we all shared together. That’s when I kind of knew that that is our front page.” And so it became. She and her fellow editors decided to string together text messages sent by students while they were locked down.
The result, in all caps, was as raw and dramatic as any news reported in real time, the actual time in which the news is occurring, and unburdened by such impediments as punctuation and censorship of raw emotions, although I lightly censored this excerpt:
“ARE YOU SAFE? WHERE ARE YOU? ARE YOU ALONE? GUYS I’M SO F---ING SCARED. HEY- COME ON SWEETHEART- I NEED TO HEAR FROM YOU. CAN YOU HEAR ANY GUNSHOTS? PLEASE STAY SAFE. BARRICADE THE DOOR OR IF YOU THINK YOU CAN RUN AND GET TO A PLACE THAT CAN LOCK DO SO. MY TEACHER IS ACTING LIKE NOTHING IS HAPPENING AND I’M LOWKEY FREAKING OUT. I WISH THESE NEVER HAPPENED. STAY CALM AND SAFE-WE LOVE YOU. I AM SO SORRY THIS IS HAPPENING. I LOVE YOU. WHAT THE F--- IS HAPPENING? MULTIPLE VOICES AND LOUD BANGING. I’M IN CLASS EVERYONE IS LOSING IT PEOPLE ARE LITERALLY SHAKING. STILL GOING ON AND COMING CLOSER, HOPING IT’S COPS. I’M GONNA F---ING THROW UP. KINDA WISH I HAD SOMEONE ELSE HERE THOUGH. PLEASE PRAY FOR US. PLEASE STAY WHERE YOU ARE AND KEEP YOUR DOORS LOCKED OR FORTIFIED. LOVE YOU SO SO MUCH. ARE YOU HOME? SOMEONE IS ALREADY SHOT. IT’S ALL SO SCARY…”
As an attention-getter, the page was a roaring success. It went viral on social networks reaching, among many others, President Joe Biden, who expressed his grief in a post on X, formerly Twitter, along with posting a reproduction of the Daily Tar Heel’s front page.
“No student, no parent and no American should have to send texts like these to their loved ones as they hide from a shooter,” he tweeted. “I’ll continue to do all I can to reduce gun violence and call on Congress to do the same.
So do I. But look at how little good that has done.
Unfortunately, anyone who has been paying attention knows where Congress is likely to go as long as the politics of gun safety continue to be locked in partisan gridlock for as far as my mortal eyes can see.
Meanwhile, we increasingly see terms such as “active shooter” and “lockdown drills” make their way into daily discourse, deepening the sense that we in the “land of the free” have locked ourselves into a prison of our own making.
(E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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