NIU Campus divided over site of shootings

April 4, 2008 11:31:38 AM PDT
Yellow police tape and wooden barricades no longer block the entrance to Northern Illinois University's Cole Hall, but students still avoid the brick building and its painful memories. It remains empty since the Valentine's Day shooting when a gunman burst into a lecture hall, killing five students and wounding 18 others before turning the gun on himself.

Whether students should ever return to the building is a question that continues to divide the campus.

University President John Peters initially wanted to tear down Cole Hall and build a memorial in its place. He suggested building a new hall elsewhere on campus, a $40 million plan endorsed by Illinois' governor.

But the idea proved so unpopular, Peters backed away and appointed a committee to discuss the building's fate.

Critics argue razing the site amounts to burying the past, along with the memory of the slain students. They want to honor the dead by continuing to use the building, either for classrooms or for some new purpose.

"There is a strong student movement to say, 'Don't tear it down,"' said the Rev. Marty Marks, a campus minister who has counseled hundreds of students, alumni and community members.

Others argue students should not have to face tragedy on a daily basis.

"Even if they did renovate it, and the classroom was different, I couldn't sit there and ... know that six people lay there dying on that ground and be able to concentrate," 22-year-old Kristen Highland of Algonquin said after a recent forum.

"It wouldn't be fair for me to have to go into that building again. I should have that choice," said the visual communication major who wore a red and black ribbon honoring the slain students.

There is no textbook answer for what to do with sites of horrible violence.

Columbine High School's library was destroyed and rebuilt. The Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., bulldozed the schoolhouse where five girls were killed.

But Virginia Tech University, where 32 students were killed a year ago this month, converted its shooting site into a peace center. And the University of Iowa quickly resumed using a building where five people were killed in a 1991 shooting spree.

"In most people's view it was important to get things normal as soon as possible. I think getting people back together and working together was important to our recovery," said Gerald Tayne, a retired University of Iowa physics professor.

At NIU, a campus of 25,000 students about 65 miles west of Chicago, classes resumed 11 days after the shooting spree.

The lights, cameras and microphones that overtook the campus in those early days are gone. Bouquets dotting the landscape have turned to straw. Candlelight vigils have ended.

Anxiety remains but Marks said the vast majority of students are ready to get back to business. Grief has been overtaken by new stress over out-of-whack class schedules and upcoming finals.

Megan Plote, a 22-year-old public health major, wants to keep Cole Hall, but with some kind of memorial inside. However, she understands the impulse to demolish it -- and acknowledges it might be a while before she'd want to attend classes there.

"I'm sure no one, obviously, wants to relive that, and that's what they'll do if they go back in there," she said. "I think my first instinct would be, 'Take it away.' But at the same time, is any good going to come from that?"

Sophomore Vicky Boland was furious to learn within days of the shooting that Peters had decided Cole Hall's fate without public discussion. She and her friends created an online group opposing the demolition and collected more than 1,300 signatures on a petition asking the administration to include more student input.

"We're not trying to raise controversy. We just want to help people with how they feel and what they want and what's best for Cole Hall," said the 19-year-old ceramics major.

The university has spent the last few weeks collecting opinions on what to do next. More than 800 e-mail responses have poured in and committees have met with staff and faculty. NIU's Student Association also has had student-only forums.

Amanda Banks said the building should remain because leveling Cole Hall would be like giving into the gunman. The 23-year-old math education major would favor turning it into an office setting or multipurpose structure.

"I think it's perpetuating the problem to tear it down, and I think it's a waste of resources," Banks said. "That's bad to say because there are some people who are emotionally torn by this event, but I think that overall ... it just wouldn't be beneficial to the community as a bigger whole, to tear it down."

Some argue it's just plain foolish to spend $40 million replacing a perfectly good building built in 1968 when the state and the university are scraping by financially. The hall also houses anthropological artifacts that could cost a lot to move.

Although Peters has stepped back from the demolition plan, he made it clear Thursday that he never again wants Cole Hall used for a major classroom.

Victims' families haven't spoken publicly about preferences for the building's future. Peters said it's not at the forefront of their minds less than two months after the shootings.

While the university president said most students who were in Cole Hall during the shooting never want to return, he also said it's too early to tell if there any one course of action is favored overall.

"I'm not going to prejudge that," he said. "I'm going to let the process work and I've got a real open mind on that."

The hope is to have a proposal in to the NIU Board of Trustees by May so any work can be begin by the summer.

Virginia Tech officials remember how difficult it was to navigate their way past last year's killings. The school sent counselors to NIU to help prepare for the return of students, and a delegation of officials visited to discuss recovery efforts.

"Our tragedy, painful as it was, may have helpful lessons to other people. It's a part of the recovery process for us," said Virginia Tech provost Mark McNamee.

McNamee headed a campus task force that reviewed proposals for how to use the space after Seung Hui Cho gunned down 32 people and killed himself on campus. Ideas ranged from restoring classes as usual to turning the building into a memorial or razing it.

In the end, they decided to use the space for a Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention and an interactive learning area. The victims' families approved of the plans, which involved altering the space so it no longer resembled classrooms, officials said.

McNamee urged NIU officials to listen carefully to the NIU community and accept there's "no perfect solution to these very difficult decisions."

"Every building is different, every situation is different," he said, "and I think as long as the process is good and they're comfortable with it, they'll do the right thing."

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Associated Press Writer Tara Burghart contributed to this report from DeKalb.


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