February 14 is known the world over as Valentine’s Day. It is a romantic day for lovers and a tender time for family members who traditionally celebrate the day by reaffirming their love for each other through an exchange of Valentine’s Cards or the giving of flowers, candies, or other meaningful gifts. In fact, many school campuses all over the country have been known to hold various activities to commemorate this day of hearts as it is also called. This day has been particularly exciting for students who anticipate it year after year not only because of the activities within the campus but also because of their dates with their boyfriends and girlfriends after school that always seem more thrilling during Valentine’s Day.
Over at the Northern Illinois University, a campus consisting of about 25,000 students in DeKalb which is an hour away by car from Chicago, on February 14, 2008, 20-year-old Lhee Santos and Monique Caspillan, 19, his girlfriend of five months, were at the Cole Hall lecture room for their geology class. Like most typical students, they were excited because they were supposed to go out later that evening to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, February 14 was not meant to be romantic and exciting at the university this year. Instead of an exciting evening, Lhee and Monique became witnesses to a bloody Valentine’s Day massacre at the Northern Illinois University in DeKalb (Gray, 2008).
A shooting rampage occurred at the Cole Hall lecture room which left four persons killed on the spot, including the lone gunman who committed suicide. Eighteen others were wounded, among them the graduate student assistant who was leading the class discussion. Two of the wounded would later succumb to their wounds while being treated, raising the total number of dead to six. Five of the wounded were admitted in different hospitals in the area while nine, who suffered only minor or less grave gunshot wounds, including Joseph Peterson, the graduate student assistant who had been leading the class discussion and who suffered a wound in the arm, were sent home after being attended to (Naqvi, 2008).
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The massacre, which marred Valentine’s Day at the Northern Illinois University campus and traumatized thousands of students and faculty members, capped one week of gun-perpetrated violence in different campuses in the country (Associated Press, 2008). The incidents once again drew attention to the virtual absence of restriction on gun procurement and distribution in the country. The fatalities during those seven days put into serious doubt the safety of Americans in the face of the proliferation of loose firearms in the country as a result of the loosely-regulated firearms sale. Read about online enrollment system proposal
Exactly seven days before, on February 8, a female student of the Louisiana Technical College killed herself after shooting to death two fellow students. On February 11, a 17-year-old student of Mitchell High School located in Memphis, Tennessee, was accused of shooting and seriously wounding another student during a gym class. Then on February 12, the victim of another shooting incident which occurred in a junior high school in Oxnard, California, was later pronounced brain dead in a local hospital (Associated Press, 2008). The incident brought to mind a similar shooting episode which happened the previous year. Considered to be the bloodiest shooting rampage in American campuses, 33 persons were killed by a single gunman on April 16, 2007 in Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia (Hauser, 2007).
Police and school authorities could not say what motivated the gunman who was initially described by George Gaynor, a senior student of geography who attended the lecture, as “a skinny white guy with a stocking cap on.” The gunman, according to Lauren Carr, another student who was sitting in the third row, walked “through a door on the right-hand side of the stage, pointing a gun straight ahead.” While it was not corroborated by subsequent investigations, Edward Robinson, another student who was present at the lecture hall, observed that the gunman appeared to have specific targets in mind. He was quoted as saying that “It was almost like he knew who he wanted to shoot. He knew who and where he wanted to be firing at” (Associated Press, 2008).
Meanwhile, a 20-year-old sophomore student surnamed Carr said the students were left with no other choice other than to “get up and run” in the face of the shots or die in that hall. She said that when she heard a girl scream “Run, he’s reloading the gun,” she “Army-crawled halfway up the aisle” as she saw a bleeding male student running for his life. Cole Hall, according to horrified witnesses, echoed with the terrified screams of the unscathed and the agonized cries of the wounded students who were dashing for the door during that 3 p.m. Valentine’s Day rampage (Associated Press, 2008).
On the other hand, Lhee Santos, who had been sitting on row 7, provided a vivid narration of the whole episode to Time reporter Steven Gray. According to him, the first thing that he could remember was a tall, thin white man “kicking open the door on the lecture hall’s right side” at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Then the unannounced visitor went into the stage bringing several weapons, among them a Glock 9mm semi-automatic pistol and a 12-gauge Remington shotgun which were later identified by investigators. At first, Santos said, some of them thought that everything was just a joke until the firing actually started. He recalled that the unidentified gunman first shot the graduate student assistant then directed his fire into the front row at the center portion of the class (Gray, 2008).
When the firing started, pandemonium broke out. Students started screaming, others were crying. Many of them starting rushing up the ascending aisles, which divided the lecture room “into three seating areas that swept upwards,” hoping to make their escape through the back doors located at the top. Santos said that he saw the gunman aimed his weapon and fired at the students who were running up the aisles then jumped down onto the floor. During that time Santos had already grabbed Monique, his girlfriend, and pulled both of them against the wall only several steps from the front exit. Shivering, they watched the gunman “stepping up the aisles, just shooting people, just like that, at point-blank range.” When Kazmierczak neared row 7, Santos and Caspillan threw themselves down, hiding between the chairs. Santos said that he and his girlfriend were shaking all over because the gunman stopped precisely at row 7, looking up and aiming at the students who were trying to reach the top exits. “If he’d just turned around, he would’ve shot me. I wouldn’t be here,” Santos said (Gray, 2008).
Fortunately, according to Santos, Kazmierczak went down the aisle without seeing them. They stayed down but after about 30 seconds of silence, he poked his head up and saw nobody standing and heard no more shouting, but remembered observing that there was blood everywhere. So they ran down the aisle without looking at the stage and made their escape through the exit door at the right of the room. Santos and Caspillan thought that they were the first people to leave the room. It was around 3:15 when he was able to contact his parents. Some five minutes later, an alert was posted by school authorities on the school website advising students and staff that “There has been a report of a possible gunman on campus. Get to a safe area and take precautions until given the all clear. Avoid the King Commons and all buildings in that vicinity.” What Santos remembered most about the gunman was the fact that he "never yelled. He just came in, shot at us like we were cattle" (Gray, 2008).
Some witnesses, on the other hand, said that the entire incident took only one minute and a half, at the end of which six cartridges belonging to a shotgun and 48 pistol casings were counted on the floor of the stage. The gunman, later identified as 27-year-old Stephen Kazmierczak, was described by witnesses as having “a blank stare on his face” who uttered not a single word as he was emptying his guns at the crowd. It was reported that he entered the campus with a pump-action, 12-gauge Remington shotgun and three handguns which included a 9mm Glock semi-automatic pistol and a 380mm Highpoint pistol. The shotgun was hidden inside a guitar case while a dark coat covered the ammunition belt which he had around his waist (Reid, 2008). The fatalities were identified as 20 year-old Daniel Parmenter from Westchester, Gayle Dubowski, another 20-year-old who came from Carol Stream, Ryanne Mace, 19 years old, from Carpentersville, Julianna Gehant, a 32-year-old from Mendota, and 20 year-old Catalina Garcia of Cicero (Lydersen and Vargas, 2008).
The police were baffled since according to the campus police chief, Donald Grady, “There were no red flags. He was an outstanding student, an awarded student, someone who was revered by students and staff.” Apparently, no suicide or any kind of note was found at the scene or on Kazmierczak, leaving investigators without any motive for the crime. However, the people who were close to him said that he appeared erratic two weeks before the shooting (Reid, 2008).
Kazmierczak graduated from the University of Northern Illinois in 2006 and returned to do postgraduate work during the spring of 2007. During the time of the massacre, however, he was enrolled at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign for his masters degree in sociology. He was a co-author of a paper entitled Self-injury in Correctional Settings: “Pathology” of Prisoners or of Prisons” which discussed self-mutilation among prison inmates. For that paper, he earned the Dean’s Award for the year. He was also a one time vice-president of the Northern Illinois University chapter of the Academic Criminal Justice Association whose aim was to “promote knowledge and understanding of all areas of the criminal justice system” (Reid, 2008).
Although the motive was not yet established by police officers investigating the shooting, it was believed that the gunman had been making his plan for a week. It was because although he already owned two guns, he purchased two more on April 12, two days before the rampage (Goldman, Esposito, Thomas, Date, and Pinto, 2008). It was learned that Kazmierczak bought all four guns from only one gun dealer in Champaign, Illinois. The 9mm S. Sauer pistol was purchased on August 6, 2007 while the Hi Point 380 was bought on December 30, 2007. His two other guns: the Remington shotgun and the 9mm Glock pistol were only purchased the Saturday before the incident. All four guns were purchased from only one gun store. It was gathered that the gunman qualified to purchase the guns because he had no arrest record and no mental illness history on record. It was also learned from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that as long as the result of the background check, which is very thorough, is satisfactory, an applicant could have his ordered handgun after a waiting period of only 72 hours and a long firearm for a shorter 24-hour waiting period. So, Kazmierczak was able to legally purchase the four guns which he used on Valentine’s Day to shoot a total of 22 persons, killing six of them including himself (Thomas, Esposito, and Date, 2008).
The autopsy report showed that Kazmierczak died from a “gunshot wound to the mouth that fractured his skull and lacerated his brainstem.” It did not, however, show any evidence of drug abuse prior to the incident. What the autopsy found in the gunman’s body were trace amounts of a generic form of anti-anxiety drug Xanax, nicotine, and cold medicine. He was reported to have suffered from a history of mental illness. In fact, he was committed to a group home after his high school graduation. According to his girlfriend, Jessica Baty of Wonder Lake, Kazmierczak was taking three prescription drugs, namely Prozac for his depression, Xanax which was prescribed for anxiety, and Ambien to relieve him of his insomnia. Baty could not be sure whether he stopped taking Xanax and Ambien but she told investigators that Kazmierczak stopped taking Prozac three weeks before the incident because he felt odd. This was probably the reason why police chief Grady said that he had information that Kazmierczak was not only behaving erratically but was always angry and “more prone to outbursts” days before the Cole Hall shooting (Ryan, 2008).
Some troubling signs were also observed on the gunman several months before the shooting. The first was his stockpiling of weapons. Authorities could not understand his need for several firearms. Then he covered his body with bizarre tattoos. One of the most peculiar of these tattoos was said to be that of a “deranged clown riding a tricycle through a pool of blood.” Kazmierczak was also reported to have spent several nights in a hotel room located near the NIU campus before the incident. Since he was not enrolled at NIU, his staying at a nearby hotel hinted that the attack was premeditated or planned. When police visited the room, they found it littered with empty bottles of cold medicine, energy drinks, and empty packs of cigarette (Ryan, 2008).
When contacted by police and reporters in Lakeland, Florida where he lives, Robert, the father of the gunman, could not understand or explain his son’s actions. He only came out of his single-story house and faced the reporters briefly to tell them the following: “Please leave me alone. I have no statement to make and no comment…It’s a very hard time for me. I’m a diabetic and I don’t want to go into a relapse.” Then he cried before going back inside his house (Lydersen and Vargas, 2008).
As a direct result of the rampage, classes and all other activities were immediately canceled on the campus “until further notice.” Counseling sessions were made available at the residence halls which remained open and all support services continued to be in operation. By the following afternoon, almost 75% of the 6,000 residents of the five on-campus residence halls had already left for their respective homes. Kimberly Malone, a Math education junior from Bloomington, said that she and most of her friends were heading for home Friday. She said that students who had no cars had to go with friends because the school buses “were not running.” Mike Salerno, another student who was on his way home Friday, could not help thinking about the victims of the shooting. “We’re just hoping that the people in the hospital make it out all right,” he said (Naqvi, 2008).
Meanwhile, the members of the community at DeKalb rose to the occasion. They set up makeshift memorials dedicated to the victims. A row of crosses were erected near Cole Hall as well as a nearby church. A wooden wall which was under construction was also used as a memorial to enable students to express their condolences for the victims and their families. Memorial services and masses were organized throughout the day and impromptu vigils were conducted. Some students even wrote messages of peace and hope on cardboard placards and walked around the campus (Naqvi, 2008).
Authorities at NIU were able to apply a very important lesson which they have learned from the Virginia Tech massacre: “Lock down and notify” - an action which was not done by Virginia Tech authorities. Because of this, the incident was immediately known by school authorities and the other students elsewhere in the campus and after only half a minute after shots were reported at Cole Hall, police officers had arrived on the scene. Although, of course, in spite of the prompt reaction, nobody was able to do anything anymore because of the swiftness of the gunman’s actions which took only several minutes according to witnesses - from his first shot to his last which ended his own life (Lydersen and Vargas, 2008).
Still, the NIU authorities did better compared to what happened at Virginia Tech where more than 30 persons were killed in two separate attacks launched by a lone gunman. The first attack which occurred around 7:15 in the morning killed only two persons at a dormitory. However, since the school authorities did not notify the students and the school personnel until several hours later nor conducted any emergency evacuation procedures, the second attack happened more than two hours later in another part of the campus where an additional 31 persons, including the gunman who also committed suicide, got killed (Hauser, 2007).
In contrast, at NIU, only several minutes after the first shot was fired by the gunman, an alert was already posted by school authorities on the school website advising students and staff that “There has been a report of a possible gunman on campus. Get to a safe area and take precautions until given the all clear. Avoid the King Commons and all buildings in that vicinity.” In other words, if the gunman left Cole Hall for other parts of the campus like what the Virginia Tech shooter did, damage could not have been as extensive because the rest of the campus was already alerted (Gray, 2008). At the Virginia Tech massacre, authorities made the mistake of downplaying the first incident at the dormitory. As explained later by police chief Flinchum, they thought at first that “the shooting was ‘domestic,’ suggesting that it was between individuals who knew each other, and isolated to the dormitory.” According to him, “the campus was not shut down after the first shooting because authorities thought that the attacker may have left the campus, or even the state” (Hauser, 2007).
The Virginia Tech incident was a senseless rampage which ended the hopes of 32 persons and which involved a mentally-deranged individual who was able to lay his hands on a couple of killing machines. If government officials took it upon themselves to immediately do something about the accessibility of firearms to almost “anybody” who has the money to pay for them, subsequent shooting incidents like the four that occurred beginning February 8 at the Louisiana Technical College and culminating with the NIU rampage a week later, could have been prevented. Imagine one individual being able to stockpile four weapons, one of them a shotgun and the other a deadly semi-automatic Glock pistol which has a magazine containing 17 rounds of ammunition just because government records show no previous arrests and psychiatric history? By the way, research showed that a Glock semi-automatic pistol boasts of a “high-tech engineering and construction … [which allows the user to] fully concentrate on the tactical tasks required whilst being in a stress situation and does not need to think about any safeties to be deactivated” (Glock Handguns, n.d.). Ideal for a deranged person whose intent was to keep on firing until he or she runs out of ammunition? Perhaps this feature was what convinced Kazmierczak to use the Glock side by side with the Remington shotgun - for best results?
As long as Americans, including students, are allowed by law to purchase firearms with a minimum of supervision, school campuses all over the country will continue to be fettered by fear. A week before the NIU shooting spree, five people were massacred during a meeting at Kirkwood, Missouri, city hall. From 2005-06, there were 14,300 reported incidents involving children being disciplined either for possessing or actually using an explosive device or a firearm. Official records show that in the United States, 11,000 people are killed in firearms-related incidents. This means that about 60 firearms-related deaths occur every two days – more than what the United Kingdom records for one whole year (Reid, 2008). School campuses are not high security compounds. Shall we, then, continue leaving the fate of our students to chance?
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