NIU marks 15 years since 2008 mass shooting: Survivors tell of lessons learned
It's been 15 years since a lone gunman stepped into a Northern Illinois University lecture hall and fatally shot five students, wounded dozens of others and left a mark some say won't ever go away.
The lasting impact of the tragedy -- a Feb. 14, 2008, school shooting that has become part of a long and grim legacy as mass gun violence in schools grows -- has woven into the careers, lives and memories of those who survived it.
Bells chimed five times at 3:06 p.m. Tuesday outside Cole Hall on NIU's DeKalb campus, one toll for each of the five students killed when a former NIU graduate student opened fire inside the lecture hall.
Catalina Garcia, 20, Daniel Parmenter, 20, Ryanne Mace, 19, Julianna Gehant, 32, and Gayle Dubowski, 20, were killed in the shooting, and more than 30 others were injured.
Kevin Stromberg, a 2008 NIU graduate, was in that lecture hall when the shooter opened fire.
"I was in the classroom for the duration of the shooting, and at one point, the shooter was probably 10, 15 feet away from me," said Stromberg, who wasn't wounded.
Stromberg was a senior at the time. He decided to pursue a master's degree in counseling after his experience surviving the mass shooting. He now lives in Schaumburg and works as clinical director at Counseling Works, specializing in trauma counseling.
He said the shooting still has a way of influencing how he carries out his life even 15 years later.
"I would say that I try to be more present, in the moment, try to take advantage of each day as best I can," Stromberg said.
Stromberg believes he's gained a greater sense of community in the wake of the shooting.
"I felt more connected to NIU, felt more connected to the DeKalb area," said Stromberg, who also makes sure he spends more time with family and engages in his community whenever he can.
Dan Klein, a former faculty member at Northern Illinois University, pays his respects during a remembrance ceremony Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at the memorial outside Cole Hall at NIU for the victims of the mass shooting in 2008. Tuesday marked the 15th year since the deadly shooting took place on campus which took the lives of five people.
- Mark Buschfirstname.lastname@example.org
In the years since the shooting, DeKalb County area police and fire agencies have used that day to evolve critical response to mass casualty incidents.
Radio towers and communication responses are more succinct, and training focuses on neutralizing a potential threat while balancing vital medical care to injured people.
NIU Police Chief Darren Mitchell said it puzzles him to think that something so tragic took place so close to home. Mitchell earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from NIU and was serving as a lieutenant for campus police on Feb. 14, 2008.
"I can't believe it's been 15 years," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said NIU police continually have seen the importance of evolving with the times to better promote safety.
Months before NIU's mass shooting, a Virginia Tech undergraduate student killed 32 people and wounded 17 others with two semi-automatic pistols in Blacksburg, Virginia. It remains the deadliest school shooting in American history.
Mitchell said university officials used what happened at Virginia Tech to inform campus emergency response, not knowing what would befall NIU 10 months later.
"What's changed mostly, I think, is the community's expectations on police as it pertains to active shooter circumstances," Mitchell said. "Back then, it was one of those phenomena that you think this is very, very tragic. Something that you want to be cognizant of, aware of and prepared to prevent if you can from happening in your community and obviously respond appropriately. When ours occurred 10 months later, I am very proud to say that we took Virginia Tech very seriously."
Mitchell is one of six police officers who have stayed with NIU Police since 2008, he said.
"NIU has been my home," Mitchell said. "I met my wife here as an undergrad student. ... I started working for Northern, and we built a life here. The community has been good to us. We raised our kids here. They were educated in the school system here."
Mitchell offered advice to community leaders who haven't experienced a mass shooting.
"Working with the first responders -- the police, fire, paramedics, the hospital -- having a coordinated effort in the beginning is so critical and that really worked to our advantage," he said. "Because all of our training in the beginning after Virginia Tech, really put us in a position to lessen the impact of the tragedy and it was great. The impact was great. But it could have been worse had we not been prepared in the beginning."
Communication was an issue for first responders during the NIU shooting as cell towers were jammed. But since then, the technology has changed enough to allow first responders to get priority when using cell towers, so they can better communicate during dangerous situations.
Sycamore Patrol Sgt. Justin Kness was at a traffic stop when the initial call went out. Once on campus, Kness said he and other officers ran to Cole Hall with their long guns to see what they could do.
Victims had fled from Cole Hall in a panic, including to the Holmes Student Center and Founders Memorial Library, leaving responders unsure whether there were multiple shooters.
Training for active shooter response before 2008 taught Kness, also a former paramedic, that his first job was to neutralize threats, even if it meant passing victims along the way.
Kness remembers walking into a campus building, not sure if a shooter was in there, and encountering an injured student.
"One of the students who had been wounded was lying on the floor in what looked like a kind of cafeteria, break room area and there were other students tending to him, but we did -- we had to just walk on by," Kness said. "We said, 'Hey, we'll let them know you're here. We'll get somebody coming to you.' And we bypassed them, we kept going, and it stuck out to us like, 'Oh yeah, they did say we were going to do this.'"
Kness said the logistical planning done by first responders in DeKalb County has evolved since the 2008 shooting.
With every deadly mass shooting -- including Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora on Feb. 15, 2019, in which five employees were killed; Virginia Tech; and Sandy Hook Elementary School -- "each time we learn something, if not new, we firm up the knowledge and we continue to train better," Kness said.
One of the key evolutions since 2008 has been a push to involve emergency medical services quicker than they used to be. The goal now is to bring in medical personnel as quickly as possible even while police are responding to ongoing threats so fewer victims with treatable injuries die on the scene, he added.
DeKalb Mayor Cohen Barnes, also an NIU alumnus, said 15 years ago was an intense and tragic moment in the community's history, but he's found pride still emanates from those memories.
While there was an immediate coming together by different groups the day of the shooting, it's what happened after that stands out in Barnes' memory.
The "Forward, Together Forward" mantra adopted from NIU's Huskie fight song remains a prevalent call to action.
"I can still remember driving down the street and seeing ... everyone had on their marquees, all the businesses, for Together Forward, which is the theme at NIU, and it was really cool just to see that everywhere," Barnes said.
In the wake of tragedy, DeKalb came together.
Whether it was building Huskie statues across town to show solidarity with the campus community, community members baking thousands of cookies to hand out to students as they returned to campus, or providing comfort and support.
Stromberg said he refuses to let the shooting cloud the many fond memories he holds from his time at NIU. He said he and his wife make frequent trips back to campus a few times a year and often around February to remember and pay respects.
Seeing how counselors were more readily available in the wake of the shooting came as relief to Stromberg. NIU's Center for Student Assistance also was created as a result of the shooting and remains in place today.
Stromberg said he now uses the trauma he experienced to help others find their voice in the midst of pain.
"The shooting made me really want to work with folks dealing with trauma and complex trauma," Stromberg said. "It's not like I disclose it all the time with clients but just to have that deeper understanding, I think, sometimes can (enrich) the therapeutic relationship."