On Valentine’s Day, 2008, the quiet 765-acre campus of Northern Illinois University (NIU) in Dekalb, Illinois, became the site of a deadly school shooting. The country was still trying to make sense of the horrific mass shooting at Virginia Tech only ten months earlier, and wasn’t prepared to live through another. Yet, there it was on televisions and radios across the country—a terrifying attack that would claim the lives of five students and leave twenty-one others injured. 

At approximately 3:05 p.m., twenty-seven-year-old Steven Kazmierczak, a former graduate student at NIU, entered Cole Hall, a large auditorium holding an introductory Geology class with almost 150 students in attendance. He was dressed in black and wore a shirt bearing the word “Terrorist.” Kazmierczak said nothing, demanded nothing, and explained nothing. He just aimed into the crowd and started shooting. For six minutes students hid, ran, and fought to escape, until Kazmierczak took his own life, ending his reign of terror.

Like many universities, NIU administrators had developed an active-shooter response plan after the Virginia Tech shootings. Administrators enacted their plan immediately, and at 3:20 p.m., an alert went out that a shooter was on campus, instructing students to get to safety. This alert came to many students in the form of an email, while others saw it on the university’s website. This alert came almost fifteen minutes too late. Still the alert was as effective as it could have been, and within twenty minutes of the notification, NIU was on complete lockdown.

While families and students grieved the loss of five promising young lives, authorities searched for a motive. Soon, a history of mental illness began to emerge. Kazmierczak’s girlfriend at the time reported to CNN that “her boyfriend of two years had been taking Xanax, used to treat anxiety, and Ambien, a sleep agent, as well as the antidepressant Prozac.” She then reported that the shooter had stopped taking at least one of the medications only three weeks before the shooting. Later, a more complete history of mental illness emerged when the Chicago Tribune requested and released Kazmierczak’s graduate admissions essays to NIU and the University of Illinois, where he had been enrolled at the time of the shooting. The essays detailed a long battle with an undisclosed mental illness that eventually led to his parents placing him in a group home in 1998, only ten years earlier.  

As NIU sought to heal from the tragedy, a decision was made to renovate Cole Hall. The decision was made after considering feedback from students, the community, and the victims’ families. The university also created a memorial garden called the “Forward, Together Forward Memorial Garden,” located adjacent to Cole Hall where the five names of those killed that day are etched into a granite reflection wall and where students, families, and community members can reflect and remember.

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Gayle Dubowski