Mock gunman terrifies students: "I was prepared to die at that moment"

Jerry Allegood
Mar. 07, 2008

An armed man who burst into a classroom at Elizabeth City State University was role-playing in an emergency response drill, but neither the students nor assistant professor Jingbin Wang knew that.

"I was prepared to die at that moment," Wang said Tuesday.

The Friday drill, in which a mock gunman threatened panicked students in the American foreign policy class with death, prompted university officials to apologize this week to Wang and offer counseling to faculty and students.

Anthony Brown, vice chancellor for student affairs, said the university was testing its response to shootings of the sort that have shaken campuses around the country. "The intent was not to frighten them but to test our system and also to test the response of the security that was on campus and the people that were notified," Brown said.

The drill was conducted just eight days after a gunman stormed a Northern Illinois University classroom, killing five people before he took his own life. Brown said students, staff and faculty were notified five days in advance that a drill would take place. The word went out via e-mail and text messages. Not everyone got the word.

At 1:31 p.m. Friday, e-mail and text messages kicked off the drill with the announcement: "This is a test. ECSU is holding a test drill where an armed intruder will enter a room in Moore Hall and be detained by campus police."

The mock intruder, a campus police officer, carried a red plastic model gun, according to a university news release.

Wang, who teaches history and political science, said Tuesday in a telephone interview he was having a discussion in his foreign policy class when the man came to the door and said he wanted to talk with him.

"Suddenly the man pointed the gun at me," he said.

Wang said he did not know whether the gun was real. "I saw the gun but didn't have too much time to think about that," he said. "The man was serious."

Up against the wall

The intruder instructed Wang to close the door and then ordered the seven students to line up along the wall. Wang said the man told them that he had been kicked out of school and that he needed a lung transplant.

At one point, Wang said, the man threatened to kill the student who had the lowest grade point average. Wang offered to let him sit in his class, he said, but the man rejected attempts at negotiation.

Wang said some students thought the gun was fake, but they were not sure. "I was the guy who was feeling the gun on my back," he said.

After about 10 minutes, the class heard people talking outside the door, and campus police rushed in and subdued the man. "Even after this was over, nobody explained it," Wang said.

He said colleagues told him that students in another classroom blocked a door with a table and chair -- just as students did in Norris Hall at Virginia Tech in April, when 32 students were killed by student gunman Seung-Hui Cho.

During ECSU's drill, some students sent text messages to their parents, Wang said. Another staffer told Wang that students said they were prepared to jump out of a window.

The Virginia Tech shooting has led universities across the United States to re-evaluate safety and implement new procedures for identifying troubled students and notifying people in the event of an emergency. Many campuses have conducted safety drills. In January, UNC-Greensboro held an active shooter exercise that was attended by law enforcement and university officials from around the state. But that drill was planned for winter break, when students were not on campus.

'Factor in the safety'

Will Morehead of EnviroSafe Inc., a private company in Mebane that specializes in planning and evaluating emergency response, said he could not speak in detail about the ECSU drill without knowing details of how it was carried out. But he said there should be safeguards in place to protect participants.

"The realism needs to be there, but you need to factor in the safety," he said.

John Pierce of Bristol, Va., a spokesman for a pro-gun Internet group called, said the university's drill was poorly planned and dangerous. He said people in the class could have been killed or injured trying to escape or could have harmed the role player.

He called for the state to make it legal for individuals to carry firearms for self-defense. He said North Carolina is one of 16 states that make it a crime for people to carry firearms on campuses.

University Chancellor Willie J. Gilchrist said in a prepared statement that the drill was a learning experience. He said the university needed to increase the usual scope of scenarios, which generally involve hurricanes, tropical storms and evacuations.

"Unfortunately we learned lessons from frightened students that result when live scenarios are carried out," he said in a news release. "However, we want our campus to be ready in case of such an event."

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