‘He is a hero to me’

MVRHS grad used techniques learned on Island to stay safe during UNC-Charlotte shootings.

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Gordon Culletto, left, with his professor Dr. Jason Black after he successfully defended his thesis Friday on public response to mass shootings in the United States. — Courtesy Teri Culletto

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare — a text from a child at school saying there is a shooter on campus.

Teri Culletto of Vineyard Haven was one of those parents when her son Gordon Culletto, a 2012 Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School graduate, was one of the many students at the University of North Carolina Charlotte finishing out the semester when a shooter entered a classroom and killed two students and injured four others late Tuesday.

Culletto, who will graduate on Saturday with a master’s in communications studies, is also a teaching assistant within the communications department at UNC Charlotte. On Tuesday, Culletto was teaching a small lab class. After class, he went to his office in the campus’ Colvard building — 100 feet from the Kennedy building where the shooting happened — to do final exam review with two of his students.

As they were talking, Culletto received an alarming text message from another graduate student who had just left the office: “KEEP THOSE KIDS INSIDE THERE’S AN ACTIVE SHOOTER.”

Culletto and his students immediately moved into a small back office and barricaded the door with a large bookcase and a desk. A faculty member who had an office in the same building joined them to wait out the lockdown.

“When you’re in that situation, the things that you’ve gone through in terms of active shooter drills through middle school and high school, it all comes back to you,” Culletto said. “You start to remember you can’t leave personal things out, the lights need to be off, we need to get away from doors and windows, we need to be silent.”

Once secure, Culletto began texting family and friends to check in before getting a flood of campus updates via text message. Culletto said the first text message alert from the school invited some panic.

“Shots reported near Kennedy. Run, Hide, Fight,” the message read. “Secure yourself immediately.”

The “fight” part of the text prompted Culletto and his students to rip a metal strip off the wall, if only for some kind of comfort.

“Everything happens very quickly, and you sort of start to rely on these things that you’ve heard and that you’ve learned,” Culletto said.

For three hours Culletto, the faculty member, and the two students hid inside the small room until six police officers came into the office and ushered them outside.

“Ultimately, that was kind of where it was most chaotic, because nobody really knew what to do at that point,” Culletto said. “We didn’t have access to our cars because they were in this lockdown zone.”

Eventually students and faculty were able to leave the campus.

Earlier that day, Culletto’s mother, Teri, said she texted her son as she usually does since he’s been away at school. She asked how his thesis defense on Friday had gone. He told her it was great and asked her jokingly if she wanted a copy for $10. Later that day, she got a text from her son no parent would ever want to get: “Mom, don’t worry, we are sheltered in place, there’s a shooter on campus, do not call! I’ll call when I can, we are barricaded in my office don’t worry, I love you …”

When she read the text message she said she began to feel sick. Teri, who works at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, got up from her desk and went to the lobby before seeing reports of a shooting at UNC Charlotte on CNN.

“There’s this moment of surrealism,” Teri Culletto said. “As a parent you know it can happen, you know when you send your kids away to school, but you’re never ready for that text message; that’s why it seemed unreal.”

Teri said she was proud of her son’s quick thinking and response to an emergency situation. She stressed the importance of emergency lockdown drills in schools, which she said gave her son the knowledge to barricade the door and make everyone stay low to the floor, away from windows.

“He is a hero to me,” she said of her son.

Less than 24 hours removed from the experience, Culletto said he is focused now more than ever on continuing his work. The shooting was especially poignant for Culletto — the thesis he successfully defended on Friday was a study of public response to mass shootings in the U.S.

“I have always been a passionate advocate of gun control, and I’ve always had an interest in these shootings, particularly Sandy Hook, with how close it was to the Island, really struck a chord with me,” Culletto said. “Having written my thesis about gun shootings and then living through this, I am no longer writing about this as somebody who has never experienced it. It strengthens my resolve to keep doing this … to make sure people understand these can happen anywhere and to anyone.”

Culletto said he did not know any of the students who were injured or killed in the shooting, but was saddened with the loss. “Certainly this has strengthened my commitment to gun control and to doing whatever I can to advance that cause in some way,” Culletto said.