The Story of a Mass Shooting Survivor and Anthropologist


On April 30, my Liberal Studies class, framed as Anthropology and Philosophy of Science (Syllabus), was the site of a horrific event. Two of my students were killed while four more were injured. I will not share their names as to protect them, although that information is available elsewhere. I will use broad terms or titles here–when possible– as to provide some protection to the people involved and I refuse to speak or write the name of the person that took these blossoming young people from their parents, their loved ones, me, and their future.

I want to write this down, both to document the events from my perspective and to correct some of the misinformation that is abound in news articles from around the world. Also, I’m an anthropologist and so I believe that it is important to engage with this topic anthropologically, just superficially now, but in more depth and with more vigor when I am emotionally and mentally able to do so.


So what actually went down inside the room? I arrived to the classroom a couple of minutes after 5:15. It was the first day of final presentations and so I needed to have everything in place and to check in with the students. The final presentations are a culmination of a semester project where the teams work in permanent teams to address some issue in human sciences. Teams can pick anything and the topics this semester were:

  • CTE
  • Animal testing
  • Video games and violence
  • Drug abuse and polcy
  • Historical discourse on neanderthal evolution
  • Genetics
  • GMO and hormone use in food
  • Climate change
  • The social consequences of AI
  • Static versus dynamic universe
  • Tobacco and the media
  • Wind Turbine Syndrome
  • Shifts in the ethics of medical treatments
  •  Disassociative Identity Disorder and representation

After getting the computer ready, I walked around the room checking on the teams. The classroom is not a typical classroom. Instead of being a long lecture hall, it is very wide, with 14 tables situated around the edges of the room. Each table has three laptops, a flatscreen TV, and frosted glass boards to write on. The classroom is designed for active learning. See a photograph of the room below:

Image result for uncc kennedy 236

I try to make direct contact with each team before class starts to see if they need anything. I though it was particularly important on April 30 since it was the last day of classes before the final exam period and students can become quite stressed.

This was the case. Two teams were very stressed about their final presentations. Only five teams were presenting on the 30th while the rest were presenting during our final exam period on May 7. I told those teams that learning to prioritize is an important skill to learn in college and if working on the project is a greater priority than watching the presentations then they should do that (I am paraphrasing here as I don’t remember my exact words but this is the information that I conveyed).

One of the teams that was presenting that day asked if they could leave after they presented, I checked the presentation order, and told them of course. I then informed them that they were the last team to go so they were welcome to head out afterwards. The team next to them, who was also presenting, over heard and asked if the same was true for them; could they leave after the presented. I explained that the other team was going last so they had the special privilege to depart immediately after their presentation. We all laughed.

At this point, we were three minutes past the start of class and so we needed to begin the presentations. Each presentation is ten minutes and can be presented however they choose. I joke that “you can do a PowerPoint presentation, a video, skits, a news cast, a hip hop performance, a puppet show (which a team has done before!). I don’t care but you have ten minutes! A quick note: there is a rubric that the students use that has the main things I am looking for. How they get there is up to them. I sit at an empty table facing the television, prepared to evaluate the student’s work.

The first presentation is a video on static versus dynamic universe. It is quite good, using a lot of data and contextualizing it in a cultural context. We get about seven minutes into the video and without warning, earsplitting bangs ring throughout the room, off the glass walls, creating a terrible reverberation.

Students, in great confusing, begin to run. As a student told me after the events, “At first I thought it was part of the presentation or someone setting off large firecrackers.” Terror set in and we took off for the opposite door (there are two exits at each far end of the room). I stood up and kicked the chair I was sitting in away from the walkway and move towards the door, ushering students in that direction. I make it to the door, out the door and hold it open for the rushing students. One student falls down in the door way and is stepped on, I pick them up and move them back with the flow of traffic.

After exiting the room, we exit through the doors into the building’s foyer, then out the doors and down the stairs into a large courtyard, surrounded by classroom and office buildings, with a berm and fountain at the center. The students are scattering and running for their lives, in all directions. I grab a few students and rush towards a close building. I know if we make it there, we can go up the stairs to the second floor and into my office. This would put two locked doors between us and danger. We rushing yelling “ACTIVE SHOOTER!”

When we approach the anthropology department, the door is still open so we rush in. We slam the door. The department chair is still in his office so we choose there. We enter the office and shut the door. I immediately tell the chair to call 911 and that there was an active shooter. He calls. I am settling the students while the chair is on the phone and I am feeding him information about the location of the shooting.

We move away from the windows and wait for the all clear. The university quickly sends out active shooter warnings to email and cellphones. After approximately four minutes (however it felt like four hours) we see police officers rushing by the building in the direction of the incident.

The students that I have in the room with me are expressing different emotional responses: crying, disbelief, shock… Most their things were left in the classroom and so some did not even have their phones to call family, The chair and I made ours available.


After what seemed like forever, we heard a hard bang on the door to the department, “CMPD!”. The chair exits the room, opens the door and the officer directs us down a set of stairs and to exit with our hands up. We make our way and eventually convene on the east side of campus. We are informed that the shooter is in custody. Several of my brave students were already there and we embraced. They were giving their statements to the police.

I talk to several police officers; my chair remains with me and my students throughout the endeavor. We wait and eventually I am told that detectives would like my statement and I was instructed to walk to the front of the university for transportation to facility to be interviewed.

They take us in vans to an abandoned Kohl’s near campus. The police bring in wraps to eat, and lemonade and sweet tea to drink. They were very professional, accommodating, and gentle. I am the first person to be interviewed. After I was interviewed I remained with my students, comforting them and offering support in any way I could. The police bring in counselors and we are instructed to sit down with them. After talking, the counselors provided us with city resources for counselling for the future.

My wonderful partner picks me up, we go to my car on campus. Campus is still mostly locked down and we have to go the long way around to get to my car. My former graduate advisor and friend invites my partner and I to his house for dinner (it is now close to 10pm). We drive over and he and his wife (also a former professor of mine and inspiration) cook for us and provide me with the immediate support. Without my partner and my former professors, I think I would have slipped into a dire mental state. But they uplifted me and again remind me that I am loved and that I am so lucky to have them as friends and family.

I eventually go home just before midnight (we live very close by). No sleep. I got no sleep at all until around midnight on May 2. Again, on the night of May 1, my former advisor treat us to dinner, Ethiopian food (one of my favorites). We go back to his house afterwards and talk for several hours. I go home. Sleep. Now I am writing this all down.


To reiterate, I will not write his name. No one should speak it. We should not glorify him as it contributes to this kind of violence while continually traumatizing the victims and survivors.

The shooter was registered for the course. On the first day in their permanent teams, I give the students time to get to know one another. I walk around the room, chat, and continue to develop rapport with my students. The shooter tells me their name and I comment that it is the same as one of my friends (a great archaeologist!) and we will read an article at the end of the semester by the scholar.

Early in the semester, the shooter is engaged with the course material. They ask questions about the lessons, answer questions that I pose to the class. It was completely typical.

Eventually the shooter no longer came to class and I found out that they withdrew from the course. It is still January.

I run into the shooter on campus shortly after (I am guessing either late January or VERY early February) and conveyed that it was a shame that they had to leave the course but I understood. It is important to prioritize. That was the last time I saw the shooter.


Many of the students were able to quickly evacuate the room, but not all. Through discussions with victims, survivors, I was able to get an idea of what happened. Before opening fire, the shooter said nothing, did not indicate that they were going to shoot; simply raised the gun and started to fire.

It was all over in a matter of second. One student tackled the shooter and undoubtedly saved more lives. They are an absolute hero.

The shooter emptied the magazine, laid the gun down, and sat on the ground.

One victim asked the shooter to stop shooting and they said “I’m done.”

Some victims and survivors were able to run out of the room then and to a building next door where they took cover. One victim was treated by a student for the wound and shock. EMS showed up a bit later.

Not all of the students made it out. One victim was too injured to exit the room. Two others were pronounced dead at the scene.


My emotions are currently high and I am absolutely heartbroken. My students are incredibly special to me and I try to make that known throughout the semester. I am still trying to get a handle on my personal feelings surrounding this and I find it cathartic to engage with it anthropologically.

I love being an anthropologist and I am lucky to have such an amazing discipline from which I have received a tremendous outpouring of love and support. I received thousands of emails and messages from anthropologists from all over the world. Many were anthropologists that I admire and are formative to my thought and approach to the discipline. The American Anthropological Association reached out to me and gave their complete support, both personally and professionally, including backing me if I want to take this up to congress. I love my discipline and my colleagues they make the discipline what it is.

Now on to a reflection on the events. We often like to offer simply solutions to problems that we construct as being simple. People point to all kinds of quick-acting solutions: ban guns, get rid of gun-free zones, mental health…

The discourse tends to lean on one magical solution to correcting this issue when it is so much more complicated than what is on offer. People often point to the proximate causes of these tragedies and offer solutions to these proximate causes: mental health, ban guns, etc.

However, the issue is that there is rarely an appeal to solutions for ultimate causes. Why is it that mass shootings happen at such a frequency in the United States? I think pointing to structural issues is a start.

  1. The lack of socioeconomic security and the disillusionment that comes along with it. People can’t be sure of their futures given the instability and vast amount of socioeconomic inequality.
  2. I’ve been thinking about Durkheim and reapplying his notions of suicide to America society in light of the prevalence of suicide nowadays. According to Curtin et al. (2016), suicide rates have increased 2% per year from 2006-2016. Why might it be that this occurs. Durkheim created a typology of suicides and while typologies are not objective categories, they are interesting frameworks for thinking about causes. The two that apply best here are egoistic suicide and anomic suicide (Durkheim 2005). While we are not addressing suicide here, these two types may also apply to understanding the unacceptable frequency of mass shootings. 
    1. Egoistic refers to a lack of social integration and the prolonged sense of not belonging associated with it. Durkheim causes this “excessive individuation.” I believe that this is a huge problem and we have seen an trend of increased individuation, particularly since the late 1970s. Since individuation leads to a disintegration of social binding, people can become depressed, hopeless, listless, and left with little social guidance.One can easily make this observation by observing people moving through the world. Sit in on a bench and watch people walk by on the sidewalk. People bury themselves in their phone and fail to acknowledge that others exist outside of themselves in a very solipsistic kind of way.

      Furthermore, we are constructed in society as individuals and self-entrepreneurs. We all have unique identities and so there is very little that binds us socially.

    2. The second type the applies here is Anomic. This type refers to a lock of moral regulation and moral norms. This may follow as a logical extension of the lack of social integration discussed above. The lack of moral integration and norms, some moral thread that ties people together leads to disintegration. Here I am not arguing that everyone needs to be the same religion or any religion for that matter but that we fail to adhere to a shared sense of value and meaning that binds citizens and our guests together in unity.

I believe that addressing the structural issues that allow for mass shootings to be the consequence is key to preventing them in the future. We have a moral obligation to each other, our children, and future generations to tackle this now and head on. Reducing inequality, providing our citizens with security in life, and coming together to strive for a better future for all is our duty as citizens of our country and the world.


This is my story and these are my thoughts. I will not field any further questions about the events, disclose any names, or talk to the media. The information in this essay belongs to me and my students and any use of the information above needs to correctly cite me and this essay.

Curtin, Sally C.; Warner, Margaret; Hedegaard, Holly (April 2016). “Increase in suicide in the United States, 1999-2014. NCHS Data Brief No. 214”

Durkheim, E. (2005). Suicide: A study in sociology. Routledge.


93 Comments Add yours

  1. Shirley Custer says:

    Rachel….am so glad you are safe and so sorry you experienced such a terrifying situation. I didn’t ever read anything about it in the newspapers or TV……..again, so sorry for the horrid experience but know you will overcome…and undoubtedly turn this into a learning experience that will benefit many. Love, Aunt Shirley


  2. Kevin Westmoreland says:


    I am the father or Riley Howell’s girlfriend of 5 1/2 years, Lauren Westmoreland. We are devastated by the loss of this young man who had become part of our family. I read your blog post originally the weekend of Riley’s funeral but somehow did not get past the point where you and the students got out of the room. I finished it today as I am searching for some information. Thank you for taking the time to write down your thoughts and memories. I am analytical and those things help me.

    I spent some hours in the Kennedy building last week and about an hour and a half in room 236 by myself. Chief Baker, Sgt Gundacker and Elizabeth Hardin were very caring and helpful. Riley’s family is at the point where they want answers. I was able to provide some via room measurements and knowing some of the horrible but useful facts about which door the shooter came in and where he was when he was handcuffed. I would rather not go into this in this comments thread. I am leaving my information when I post. Can you contact me?

    Thank you.


    1. Please send me an email at



  3. Pingback: Subreddit Stats: Charlotte top posts from 2018-09-15 to 2019-09-15 02:07 PDT – Paid Viewpoint

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