Students return to classes at NIU

February 25, 2008 6:09:19 PM PST
Students carried backpacks stuffed with books, headed in and out of class, grabbed something to eat and plopped down in the library just like always.

But there was nothing normal about Northern Illinois University on Monday. Not with white crosses on a small knoll and television news trucks parked around campus. And not with crime scene tape strung in front of the auditorium where 11 days earlier a gunman wordlessly pumped bullets and buckshot into a crowded class, ending the lives of five students before taking his own.

"You've got to move on," said Jonathan Brock, a 25-year-old studying industrial management, who was clearly not quite ready to do that as he looked for a spot to add his thoughts to message boards on which students have expressed their grief, faith and anger.

One after another, students said they were happy to be back at classes for the first time since the shooting, doing what they are supposed to be doing - if for no other reason than maybe it could take their minds off what gunman Steven Kazmierczak had done.

"It was something to do other than sit around and think about it," Lee Scott, a 21-year-old from nearby Sycamore, said after getting out of his sociological inquiry class.

In many classes, students used silence to turn down teachers' offers to talk about the shooting, relieved to talk computer science or economics. Students instead expressed determination to get on with their lives.

"That's not going to define my college experience, one day out of the three years I've been here," said Dan Beno, a 20-year-old junior from Beach Park.

But he knows he and his fellow students will long be linked to an act of madness, just like those students from Virginia Tech who have come to NIU to offer support.

"It's terrible to think, (but) it's going to be, 'Oh, that's the shooting school,"' Beno said.

One of students most seriously wounded in the attack, Maria Ruiz-Santana, was to be released Monday from a hospital in Downers Grove, doctors said. More than 20 pellets from a single shotgun blast hit her in the chest, head and neck, and she underwent five hours of surgery.

The 20-year-old Ruiz, a criminology major, is more resolved than ever to go into law enforcement and isn't angry at her shooter, her father said at a hospital news conference.

"She feels sorry for this guy," Alfredo Ruiz said.

But his daughter "was devastated" to learn Saturday that two friends, Catalina Garcia, 20, and Ryanne Mace, 19, died in the attack. The three had been sitting together near the front of Cole Hall, Ruiz said.

His daughter remembers trying to stand up after being shot, then hearing more shots. "She went down again and tried not to move," he said.

On the quiet, rural campus in DeKalb, students seemed to feel that maybe they aren't as removed from the big city, or its perceived problems, as they believed. Or perhaps not as independent as they once thought.

"It's not half as safe as I thought it was," said Kathryn Neeves, a 22-year-old junior.

"My family is about three hours away and the only thing I could think about was how badly I wanted to see them," Neeves said of the time after the shooting. Even when it was time to return to campus, Neeves said she did so reluctantly, still feeling the unexpected time with them was not enough.

And students said they'll move on feeling differently not only about their school, but also themselves.

"Something has been taken," said Kristi Bradford, a 19-year-old from Bloomington. "But something was given back. It made me grow up a little."

Early Monday morning, NIU President John Peters noted the students "do need each other. They do want each other." Others agreed.

"I used to not feel close to other college students. We were doing the same thing but we had nothing in common," Scott said after his sociology class. "Now I feel close to my classmates even though I don't even know who they are."