NIU Shooting Anniversary: Remembering The Tragedy 15 Years Later, As School Shootings Persist In The US

Kevin Stromberg remembers gunshots, fire alarms, and glass cracking. Stromberg recalls gunpowder lingering after a Northern Illinois University shooter opened fire.

Stromberg was in class 15 years ago Tuesday when a former NIU student entered through a door behind the lecture stage and started the fire with a shotgun and semi-automatic pistols, killing five and wounding 21.

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Stromberg prayed as the gunman returned to the stage and killed himself. Stromberg and other students left Cole Hall, but he remembered it. As a psychology senior, the incident solidified his desire to help 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.

Kevin Stromberg, 37, directs Counseling Works in Naperville, Lemont, and Frankfort. He helps people overcome fear, trauma, and sadness to reach their goals. Experts say counseling can prevent such attacks. Since DeKalb, active shooter attacks have increased. The FBI reported 61 random, premeditated mass killings in 2021, up from one in 2000.

A federal analysis found 93 U.S. school shootings in 2020-21, the most in two decades. East Lansing police say a gunman killed three students and wounded five at Michigan State University on Monday night. Police say the shooter committed suicide after an hours-long manhunt. Despite school safety and gun-safety efforts, such shootings continue.

NIU spokesperson Joe King said the victims’ families requested no remembrance ceremonies this year. Survivors and family remember the five: 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 psychology student; and Daniel Parmenter, 20, a graduate of York High School in Elmhurst who worked for the school newspaper

Joseph Dubowski, Gayle’s father, vividly recalls that day. He drove to the mortuary to identify his daughter hours after the incident. Family members prayed and consoled. Before the catastrophe, Dubowksi worked in IT. Dubowski said fifteen years can feel like a lifetime or yesterday. His wife and two grandchildren live on. His 2010 family memoir, “Cartwheels in the Rain,”  is cathartic.

“(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.”

Joseph Peterson, a graduate student teaching introductory oceanography, was one of 21 shooting victims. He healed from a small left shoulder graze. He teaches geology at UW-Oshkosh. He offers collegiate active threat training courses with local law enforcement. He added the training can be used for fires and other emergencies.

Police officers rush to the scene of the shooting on the Northern Illinois University campus on Feb. 14, 2008.
Police officers rush to the scene of the shooting on the Northern Illinois University campus on Feb. 14, 2008.

He finds this job “somewhat therapeutic”. “You’re taking a terrible situation and transforming it into something that’s useful to keep people safe,” he said. He urges participants to prepare for emergencies and locate what keeps them alive, such as family or a loved one.

“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.”

According to the University of Illinois at Chicago Emergency Management and Resilience Planning researcher Hugh McCorkle, mass shooters often desire publicity or a violent law enforcement reaction to terminate their lives.

94% of perpetrators were male, 46% were Caucasian, and 25% were 21–30 years old. 75% of attackers were not young people, some were women, and over half were non-whites. Retail stores, open spaces, and commercial sites were the most prevalent mass shooting settings.

Mental health issues, employment conflicts, and ideology often motivate attackers. Shooter Steve Kazmierczak, from Elk Grove Village, attempted suicide as a teen and was treated for schizoaffective disorder. Medical privacy laws shielded school officials from his past.

Education and law enforcement officials are still learning how to reduce school shootings, but they have made some suggestions. “Harden the target, soften the staff,” prosecutor 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.”

Even silent kids might detect changes and be helped by professors who know them well. The UIC Emergency Management and Resilience Planning graduate program’s new federally sponsored study will investigate school violence deterrents.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota at Rochester, Rochester Catholic Schools, and Woodland Elementary District 50 in Gurnee will evaluate violence prevention programs and propose solutions.

The program will update administrative rules, processes, and forms; teach law enforcement, employees, and students; and adopt technology-based violence reporting mechanisms, such as NIU’s blast text message warning system following the shooting.

When a conflict or bullying happens, many schools have threat assessment teams that decide whether to penalize, counsel, notify parents, or other measures. Raising the gun ownership limit to 21, universal background checks, and school police and metal detectors are some controversial safety measures.

Gun control is the most divisive issue. Illinois legislature banned assault-style guns after a 2022 Highland Park Fourth of July parade shooting that killed seven and wounded 48. However, scores of sheriffs have refused to enforce the rule while the courts review its validity.

Since the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting that killed 26 people, Congress has introduced scores of gun control measures, including renewing the federal assault weapons prohibition, but Republican opposition has blocked all but one.

A 2008 shooting memorial garden lies outside Northern’s refurbished Cole Hall. One memorial wreath was on the ground one weekday. Senior Tiffany Clash-Shaw stopped to reposition the wreath.

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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 young at the NIU shooting. Cole Hall was in her class 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.”

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