15 years after students were gunned down at NIU, memories remain and school shootings continue in US – Chicago Tribune newstrendslive

The sounds of gunshots, the ringing of a fire alarm and the breaking of glass echo in Kevin Stromberg’s memory. When a shooter opened fire at Northern Illinois University, Stromberg remembers, the smell of gunpowder hung in the air.

Fifteen years ago Tuesday, Stromberg was in class when a former NIU student burst in through a door behind the lecture stage and opened fire with a shotgun and semi-automatic pistols, killing five and injuring 21.

“I just remember laying on the ground,” Stromberg said. “I was kind of peering between seats and at one point the shooter came off the stage and started walking down the aisle where our row was, and I had told my peers ‘lay down, lay still’ — luckily he didn’t continue up the aisle, he turned back around.”

Stromberg prayed as he watched the gunman walk back on the stage and fatally shoot himself. Stromberg and some other students walked out and away from Cole Hall, but the experience stayed with him.

As a senior in psychology, the tragedy cemented his decision to become a therapist and pushed him to work with trauma victims.

“I think what’s been beneficial is when I work with veterans or first responders, I typically will share my experience with them and that helps form that therapeutic alliance where they’re like ‘OK, you’re someone we can trust,’” Stromberg said.

Students walk toward the entrance of Cole Hall on Northern Illinois University’s campus on Feb. 9, 2023, in DeKalb. On Valentine’s Day in 2008 there was a mass shooting inside of Cole Hall which killed five students and injured 17 more people.

Now 37, Stromberg is the clinical director and therapist at Counseling Works in Naperville, Lemont and Frankfort. He works on issues of anxiety, trauma and depression, trying to help people change to get where they’re going. Counseling is the kind of help that experts believe can help head off such attacks.

Unfortunately, active shooter attacks have become much more common since the one in DeKalb. FBI statistics show incidents involving random, intentional mass killings in the United States increased from one in 2000 to 61 in 2021.

The 2020-21 school year saw 93 school shootings, in the U.S., the greatest number in two decades of tracking, according to a federal report.

Such shootings still happen with frequency despite ongoing efforts to make schools safer and adopt gun-safety measures.

At NIU, commemorative events were held on previous anniversaries of the shooting, but school spokesman Joe King said the victims’ families requested no such event this year.

Still, families and survivors remember the five who died: Gayle Dubowski, a 20-year-old anthropology major from Carol Stream who attended Bible study; Catalina Garcia, 20, an elementary education major from Cicero who was active in the campus Latino Resource Center; U.S. Army veteran Julianna Gehant, 32, an elementary education major from rural Mendota; Ryanne Mace, 19, of Carpentersville, an honors student in psychology; and Daniel Parmenter, 20, a graduate of York High School in Elmhurst who worked for the school newspaper and played rugby.

Gayle Dubowski’s father, Joseph, remembers that day vividly. After learning, hours after the shooting, that his daughter had died, he had to drive to the morgue to identify her. Family members gathered there to pray and console each other.

Dubowksi was an IT professional before the tragedy led him to become a licensed marriage and family therapist providing grief counseling.

Fifteen years feels like a lifetime, Dubowski said, though sometimes it feels like yesterday. He and his wife have two grandchildren and their lives go on. His 2010 book on his family’s experience, “Cartwheels in the Rain,” has also been cathartic.

Joe and Laurel Dubowski in their backyard with a heart balloon that they bought for their daughter Gayle on Feb. 10, 2023, in Carol Stream. On Tuesday, they will take this balloon and place it at her memorial outside of Cole Hall at Northern Illinois University.  Gayle was one of five students killed in a mass shooting in 2008.
A photo of Gayle Dubowski in her parents' Carol Stream home.

“(Gayle) is still a part of our lives in the turns of our thoughts and conversations,” Dubowski said. “We (eventually) were able to move beyond the loss and not continue living in the pain of past memories, rather be able to let go of that pain so we could enjoy our fond memories without them being a source of pain all the time.”

Among the 21 victims injured in the shooting was Joseph Peterson, a graduate student teaching an introductory oceanography course. He suffered a graze wound to his left shoulder, an injury he describes as minor and which has since healed.

He’s now a professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.

He works with local law enforcement to host active threat training workshops on college campuses. While much of the focus is on active shootings, he said the training can be applicable to fires and other emergency situations.

This work has been “somewhat therapeutic” for him.

“You’re taking a terrible situation and transforming it into something that’s useful to keep people safe,” he said.

He wants participants to prepare for emergencies and find what motivates them to stay alive, be it a loved one, family or something else.

“It’s trying to create a more safe and compassionate community,” he said. “In these sessions we talk about how to identify when someone is in need of some help. … Getting people the help they need is one of the main goals.”

There is no profile common to all mass shooters, but according to University of Illinois at Chicago Emergency Management and Resilience Planning researcher Hugh McCorkle, they often are in a downward spiral due to a problem or perceived wrong, and are seeking attention or provoking a lethal law enforcement response as a means to end their life.

More than one-quarter of perpetrators were between 21 and 30 years of age, 94% were male and 46% were white. Yet 75% of attackers were not young adults, women committed some of the crimes, and more than half of attacks were by non-whites.

While school shootings get the most attention, the most common mass shooting sites by far were retail stores, open spaces and commercial sites.

The attacker’s motivation often is unclear, but mental health problems, workplace disputes and ideological beliefs are common factors.

At Northern, shooter Steve Kazmierczak, who grew up in Elk Grove Village, had attempted suicide repeatedly as a teen and been treated with counseling and medications for schizoaffective disorder. School officials were unaware of his history because of medical privacy laws.

Within such limitations, education and law enforcement officials still are trying to learn how best to minimize school shootings, but have come up with some recommendations.

“Harden the target, soften the staff,” prosecutor and Black Swan Verdicts threat assessment consultant Wendy Patrick said. “Make the building structurally secure to discourage unauthorized entry, and encourage faculty to get to know the students on a personal level.”

Richard Rank, 24, a history major at NIU, studies inside Cole Hall at Northern Illinois University on Feb. 9, 2023.

When faculty know the students well — even the quiet ones — they can notice concerning changes and intervene.

A new federally funded program by the UIC Emergency Management and Resilience Planning graduate program aims to find out what measures work best at deterring school violence.

Researchers will partner with the University of Minnesota at Rochester, Rochester Catholic Schools, and Woodland Elementary District 50 in Gurnee to assess violence prevention efforts and suggest options based on research.

The program will focus on a few key areas of school violence prevention: updating administrative policies, procedures and forms; training for law enforcement, staff and students; and technology-based violence reporting systems — such as a blast text message notification system implemented at NIU after the shooting.

Many schools have created threat assessment teams that are notified when an incident such as a fight or bullying occurs, and decide whether to respond with discipline, counseling, parental notification or other measures.

Other common but sometimes controversial safety recommendations include raising the age to own a gun to 21, universal background checks, and protecting schools with police and metal detectors.

Gun control has been perhaps the most contentious point of debate. Following a shooting at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade in 2022 that killed seven people and wounded some 48 more, Illinois lawmakers passed a ban on the sale and purchase of certain assault-style weapons. But the courts have prohibited enforcement of the law while they consider legal challenges to its constitutionality, and scores of sheriffs have refused to enforce it.

Since a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 26 people in 2012, Congress has proposed dozens of gun control measures, including renewing the federal assault weapons ban, but with Republican opposition, all but one have failed to pass.

At Northern, outside the renovated Cole Hall, a memorial garden is dedicated to victims of the 2008 shooting.

Tiffany Clash-Shaw, a senior psychology major, picks up a wreath that has fallen on the ground in the memorial garden outside Cole Hall on Northern Illinois University on Feb. 9, 2023, in DeKalb. The memorial garden was built in remembrance of the five students killed in the Valentine’s Day shooting in 2008.

On a recent weekday, one of the wreaths at the memorial was on the ground. Senior Tiffany Clash-Shaw was walking by and stopped to place the wreath back in its proper position.

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“It’s just a way to honor the dead and have their story live on, even though they’re not here right now,” the psychology major from Aurora said.

She was a small child at the time of the NIU shooting. But she had a class in Cole Hall last semester.

“It just makes me eerie to see that all this stuff happened, and it’s become way (more) normal than it should have, especially at universities and schools with little kids,” she said. “It’s devastating to hear about. But I can’t put myself into other people’s shoes because I wasn’t there. So all you can do is just remember. And pay it forward.”

Chicago Tribune’s Stacey Wescott contributed.




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