GREENSBORO — Gunshots split the air on a cold morning at UNC-Greensboro. Three shooters invaded the dilapidated McIver Building on the southeast side of campus. University and local police swarmed the scene minutes later.
The incident Thursday, Feb. 1, felt like a TV moment — especially since none of the action was real, sophomore Zoe Smith told Carolina Journal. The episode was part of a carefully organized mass shooter training exercise — one of several to be held on UNC campuses this year.
Mass shootings are a rising concern in the U.S., as illustrated by tragic events like the Feb. 14 attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen people were killed, and 14 were wounded.
The risks are painfully real, said Zach Smith, UNC-G’s director of emergency management services. Just recently, a student from Winston-Salem State University was shot and killed at Wake Forest University. Police identified three suspects a few days after the incident. The investigation is ongoing.
UNC-G’s emergency response teams must prepare for a worst-case scenario, Zach said.
The university spent months organizing the event, and more than 400 volunteers, law enforcers, and emergency personnel took part. Members of the Greensboro Police Department, Greensboro Fire Department, State Bureau of Investigation, and FBI were just a few of the many participants.
The UNC-G drill was one of the largest held on a UNC campus, said university spokeswoman Eden Bloss.
About 9:30 a.m., three UNC-G students led a fake attack on McIver. The scenario began with a car crash, “injuring” about a dozen bystanders. After the first assault, shooters stormed the building. Havoc ensued.
The events were fictitious, but police teams inside the building were shaken by the experience.
“We try to keep it as realistic as possible for training value, and so we have role players,” Zach said. “They’re screaming, you hear the gunshots that are simulated gunfire, and there are a lot of physical altercations and things like that.”
Zoe was one of 70 volunteers who played the role of victim. The architecture major, like dozens of other participants, wore “moulage,” stage makeup to simulate major injuries.
“I kind of feel like I don’t understand things until I see them firsthand, so being able to experience this today was eye opening. I would say I know how to react when a situation like this occurs,” Zoe said.
Mass shootings are increasing at alarming rates, and “educational environments” are high-risk territories, a 2013 FBI study shows.
The report, which excluded shootings involving gangs or drug violence, studied 160 active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013. Thirty-nine of those incidents occurred at public schools and college campuses.
The 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech is the third largest gun attack in the U.S., with 32 killed and 17 wounded. The 2012 incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 29 were killed and two were injured, is the fourth-deadliest shooting on record.
In 2016, the U.S. saw 483 mass shooting incidents, says data from the Gun Violence Archive. More than 300 shootings occurred in 2017.
This year is off to another violent start.
While campus violence gets a lot of press, it’s not necessarily indicative of a rise in crime, said Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.
“High-profile campus shootings have clouded our perception. The truth is that university campuses are some of the safest places in the country. Most of the time, campuses are safer than the neighborhoods and cities they’re located in.”
In 2009, 52 percent of crimes on N.C. campuses were related to drugs and alcohol, says a 2010 Martin Center report. Thirty-three were burglaries. Fifteen percent were violent crimes.
Since it’s impossible to know when a shooter may attack campus, first responders never can be too prepared, Zach said.
UNC campuses regularly hold training exercises to prepare for mass shootings and other emergencies.
UNC-G is one of five schools to receive $42,000 for mass shooter trainings this year. Elizabeth City State University, N.C. State University, North Carolina Central University, and the N.C. School of Science and Math will hold similar exercises between October 2018 and October 2019.
The UNC System hired an outside firm to coordinate trainings across several campuses. Ellis said the university was able to get “preferred pricing, address particular campus needs, and assure that high priority campus safety and emergency training needs are being addressed.”
“These emergency exercises help our campuses and our local, state, and federal partners test their systems and response plans using a variety of scenarios, and identify areas for continued improvement,” Ellis said.