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You Saw Our Terrified Texts During the UNC Shooting. Don’t Look Away Now.

unc students hold a vigil for gun violence after a campus shooting
The Front Page That Captured Gun Violence’s Toll Getty Images

I never knew UNC’s emergency sirens could blare so loudly until the day last week when the unthinkable—and somehow also eerily predictable—happened.

I was in the offices of UNC-Chapel Hill’s student-run newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, where I’m the print managing editor, when we received a text alert from university officials telling us that there was an armed and dangerous person on campus. A small group of editors and I locked the doors and immediately turned on emergency service scanners for any hint as to what might be unfolding just half a mile away.

Looking back, our movements shouldn’t have been so automatic, but we were trained for this. I’ve taken part in lockdown drills from the time I was in elementary school all the way until I received my high school diploma. Any veteran of public K-12 schools has to live with this inevitability.

At this point, you know what happened next: UNC graduate student Tailei Qi, 34, fatally shot associate professor Zijie Yan in Caudill Laboratories—a place central to campus and near our main libraries, cafeterias, and lecture halls. For more than three hours, terrified students sheltered in place, dragging chairs to barricade library doors and using heavy wooden dressers to fortify their dorm rooms.

I’m a journalist, and Ive wracked my brain trying to put into words what our campus experienced that day and in the week since, as this shooting, like so many others around the country, has been mourned at light-speed. We grieve for the loss of Zijie Yan—a cherished member of our community. We’re angered by the professors who continued to lecture as sirens went off, showing blatant disregard for everyone’s safety. We’re concerned by the lack of clarity from the university, which failed to provide any real updates during those grueling three hours, allowing misinformation to flourish. We heard that the gunman was dressed as a police officer, that he had taken hostages, that he was driving across campus—all rumors which ended up being false. We’re frustrated by law enforcement who purportedly handcuffed the wrong student because he fit the description of an Asian man in a gray shirt, even though they had the name of the gunman at the time of the 911 call.

We feel the trauma of more than a decade of lockdown drills and active shooter trainings. For many, the reality of last Monday’s tragedy has yet to set in. We are all crying more and sleeping less.

At The Daily Tar Heel office, we spent Monday night pivoting. What was supposed to be an issue highlighting our upcoming football season—and all the excitement of a brand-new school year—had to convey the weight we all felt so heavily. Student reporters spoke in hushed tones and worked quietly. No story or picture on the front page would do our emotions justice. Emmy Martin, our editor-in-chief and my close friend, proposed a heart-wrenching alternative. The front page featured text messages from UNC students, sent and received during Monday’s lockdown, as they offered love to friends, checked in on classmates, and pleaded for prayers from family members. We wanted to tell the story of what happened between 1:04 p.m., when students were first warned of the danger, and 4:14 p.m., when the all-clear was sent.

In the days that followed, our story of fear and trauma gripped the nation, seeming to break through the usual grim resignation to gun violence. I realize that the status quo isn’t for a lack of compassion. So many people, even beyond our university bubble, could relate to the frantic texts they saw on the front cover of our paper because they had sent or received similar messages in their own lives. That is a terrible burden to live under.

While I am eternally grateful that our work was able to garner national attention—an honor for any journalist—its important to me that the story doesn’t just end there. We are a generation of students, all too familiar with the concept of a lockdown or an armed person on school grounds—a space that is supposed to be a safe place to learn. Stress has become so commonplace in our lives that our transition back to normal, whatever that means, is expected to be easy. I’m not sure it will be.

The nation has been moved by our panic and now, I hope they can be moved to action. We need to redouble our efforts to prevent this from happening again and again. The national news cameras won’t always be stationed on our quad; the headlines won’t always be about the text messages we frantically sent that day. But our fear will leave a scar that won’t heal so easily. I hope you won’t look away.

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