As officials at Northern Illinois University prepare for the return of 25,000 students this week, they have announced only one decision about the scene of the shootings. The building where a gunman killed five students and then himself on Feb. 14, Cole Hall, will remain closed this semester.
As officials at Northern Illinois University prepare for the return of 25,000 students this week, they have announced only one decision about the scene of the shootings.
The building where a gunman killed five students and then himself on Feb. 14, Cole Hall, will remain closed this semester. Space has been found in other campus buildings to move all classes from the two large lecture halls in Cole.
What happens afterward is the subject of speculation. Some students say they could never go back into the building and could not concentrate on academics if they did. Some suggest Cole be turned into a memorial. Others say that despite the tragedy,
NIU cannot afford to raze a classroom building in an era of declining state support.
Officials say they haven’t discussed the future of Cole. Cherilyn Murer, who chairs the
NIU board of trustees, said she doesn’t know what will be done after this semester.
Murer said the options include resuming classes, transforming it for some other use or closing it permanently. But it’s too early to say, Murer said.
“It’s only been a week,” she said. “Right now, the emotions are so raw that it would be premature to make a decision about what we’ll do with that building.”
Another trustee, Barbara Giorgi Vella of Rockford, expects there won’t be serious discussion of what to do with Cole until summer. At that point, she said, financial constraints have to be taken into consideration, along with the feelings of students and staff.
Cole Hall, where nearly every undergraduate has at least one class, is one of the largest classroom buildings on campus, with two auditoriums seating what students estimate to be 250 people each.
The idea of closing the building permanently is circulating on campus but doesn’t seem practical to Justin Weaver of Beloit, an NIU sophomore.
“Given that NIU already has issues in terms of space, even though it seems appropriate to close it forever given the tragic events that happened there, it still seems foolish,” Weaver said.
“When I looked at the schedule for reassigning classes, it was staggering how many classes are held in Cole Hall,” Weaver said. “You can’t duplicate that space.”
There are labs in the Cole Hall basement and one, for journalism students, is the best-equipped on campus for that kind of work, Weaver said.
As for changing the atmosphere inside the building, Weaver also takes a practical approach.
“The only thing that can change Cole Hall is time,” he said. “As people at NIU graduate, new people will come in. They will know what happened but they weren’t there and they won’t feel the gravity quite as much.”
McHenry senior Colin Leicht suggested transforming the front of the building, perhaps using the large walls erected this week for students to express their sorrow.
“Don’t tear it down,” said Leicht. “It’s still a good building. NIU has had problems getting money from the state to rebuild other buildings. I don’t think we’re in a position to tear down a building.”
Rockford junior Krista Robinson said one professor asked her and other students what they thought about NIU erecting an environmental feature, perhaps a windmill, as a memorial.
Robinson wasn’t impressed.
“I think a windmill is a good idea, but not as a memorial. I can imagine parents wondering what kind of memorial that is. It’s not really relevant.”
Cole Hall was constructed in 1968. The general-education building contains 18,000 square feet of space.
Other institutions have faced the question NIU now confronts.
At Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where two students killed 12 others and one teacher in April 1999, the library where most of the killing took place no longer exists.
Frank DeAngelis, principal then and now, said the old library would have been forever associated with the April 20 massacre. Students, parents and community members agreed they could no longer enter the room without reliving the pain, he said.
Thought was given to demolishing the entire school but that would have been a mistake, DeAngelis said.
“If we tore the building down, Harris and Klebold would have won,” he said.
The solution was to tear out the library, which was above the cafeteria/commons area, and open the commons into a two-story space. A new library was constructed nearby and connected to the school by a hallway.
The problem, said DeAngelis, is that spectators still come to the school, sometimes in tour buses, distracting the students.
Constructing a memorial on campus is a problem because it becomes an attraction, bringing in people not connected to the school, DeAngelis said. That’s why a separate memorial was built at a nearby park, far enough from the school so students don’t see people coming and going.
The new library cost $3.5 million. DeAngelis said a community fund drive, coupled with donations from building contractors, quickly raised the money.
Virginia Tech ponders changes
Officials at Virginia Tech are still using buildings that were the scene of the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded many more before committing suicide at the Blacksburg, Va., campus April 15, 2007.
Cho shot his first victims in a dorm room in West Ambler Johnston Hall. Two hours later, he opened fire in Norris Hall, which contains the school’s Engineering Science and Mechanics program among others.
Norris Hall would have cost $30 million to replace, according to university estimates. Instead, officials reopened Norris two months after the shootings and a task force was formed to entertain ideas for its future.
In December, Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger announced the school would spend $1 million remodeling about 4,300 square feet of the second floor of the building, which will be home to the new Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.
The dorm room where the initial shootings took place is still closed, but it’s not practical to close the entire 800-room residence hall, said University Relations
Director Mark Owczarski. Approximately 10,000 of the school’s 26,000 students live on campus at Virginia Tech. The school has 14 residence buildings and another under construction.
“On-campus housing is a premium here,” Owczarski said. “Honestly, students enjoy living in West Ambler Johnston Hall as they do in all of our residence buildings.”
Memories will remain
Changing a building does only so much to relieve the hurt, said Columbine’s DeAngelis, adding that he still has flashbacks.
DeAngelis said he has spoken with NIU leaders. Given his experience, DeAngelis feels compelled to reach out to schools where shootings have taken place.
“People still ask me, ‘what was the one day when everything got back to normal?’” he said. “It’s never going to come.”
NIU students seem to understand.
Going to class in Cole would never be the same, said Leicht.
“The first day, I would be a little anxious, knowing this is where it happened,” he said about having class there. “After that, as long as that door stays locked, it would be just another classroom. It could have happened in any classroom. But I think that door (where the gunman entered) should be locked.”
“It would be difficult” to go back into Cole, said Weaver. But if it’s reopened at some point, “it would be something I and everyone else would have to do.
“I’ll tell you this, though. I have had a lot of classes at Cole and I always sat in the first two or three rows. I will never do that again, not ever.”
Robinson thinks Cole ought to become part of campus learning again, at some point.
“I wouldn’t close it down indefinitely but definitely for the rest of the semester. Maybe open it back up next year,” she said.
“But let Cole Hall be for right now,” she said. “Let there be a little bit of rest in Cole Hall.”
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What others have done
Here is what other institutions have done after being the scene of multiple deaths from violence:
Columbine High School: Two student gunmen, who committed suicide, killed 12 students and a teacher in the April 1999 shooting at Columbine in Littleton, Colo.
The library, where most of the shootings took place, was torn out and the cafeteria below it remodeled into a two-story room. A local artist painted a skyline mural with the branches of Aspen trees and 13 clouds — one for each of the victims. A library was built nearby.
Virginia Tech: Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people before committing suicide at the Blacksburg, Va., campus April 15, 2007. It is the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
Virginia Tech is still using buildings where the shootings occurred. Norris Hall was reopened in June 2007. The school will spend $1 million remodeling the second floor of the building, which will be home to the newly created Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention. The dorm room where a student was killed is closed, but the rest of the 800-room residence hall is still open.
University of Texas: On Aug. 1, 1966, a sniper barricaded himself on the observation deck of the tower on campus and began a shooting spree that killed 14 people and ended when police killed him. It was the worst school shooting until Virginia Tech in 2007.
The observation deck was closed until 1968, then opened and closed again in 1975 because of a series of suicide jumps. In 1999, security and safety measures were installed and the deck was reopened.
Crandon, Wis.: Six young adults were killed by a 20-year-old off-duty sheriff’s deputy Oct. 7 as they relaxed in a home.
Plans are to tear the building down and create a memorial garden, but first the mortgage must be paid. A fund drive was started but contributions dwindled when the homeowner, the father of one of the victims, announced plans to sue the county over the shooting.
Nickel Mines, Pa.: A gunman burst into an Amish schoolhouse and killed five young girls Oct. 2, 2006, then killed himself. The building was demolished 10 days later and the site is used to graze cattle.
Budget: $104 million
Founded: 1899 as satellite of Illinois State Normal School
Renamed: NIU in 1957
Main campus: 755 acres
Regional sites: Hoffman Estates, Naperville and Rockford
Programs of study: Seven degree-granting colleges; 55 undergraduate majors; 75 graduate programs, including 10 Ph.D. programs, doctoral degrees in education and juris doctorate
Students: 91 percent from Illinois; 46 percent men, 54 percent women; 26 percent ethnic minorities; 862 international students from 88 nations
Class size: Average is 28 students (18 in senior-level classes)
Oldest building: Altgeld Hall, opened in 1899
Newest building: Yordon Center, opened in 2007