Since last week’s deadly shooting at Northern Illinois University (NIU) that left five students and the gunman dead, DeKalb native and first-year Margaret Bujarska has had a difficult time being away from home.
Bujarska’s twin sister, Kathy, was in NIU’s Cole Hall when Steven Kazmierczak, a 27-year-old former graduate student at the university, stormed a lecture hall in that building and started shooting. Her friend Denise was in the classroom, but escaped injury by ducking to the ground and covering herself with a coat.
“Any little thing different could’ve been complete chaos for me. My twin sister could’ve gotten hurt,” Bujarska said.
Speaking to her family and friends back home about the community’s response in the shooting’s aftermath, Margaret has been struck by descriptions of a place unlike the DeKalb that she left when she came to Chicago last year.
“DeKalb—we do have a community feeling to it, because it is a small town. This definitely brought the community together,” she said. “We weren’t like a huge happy community…. People would usually complain about DeKalb, ‘There’s nothing going on, it’s boring.’”
Now, amid stories of DeKalb’s tremendous outpouring after the tragedy, Bujarska wishes she could be home to share in that experience.
“It’s really hard though, because I haven’t been home…. I’m kind of regretting that now…. It’s terrible to have wanted to see something like this, but I really just wanted to see how everyone came together, because I really didn’t see that when I was in high school…. Just to see that would have been amazing,” she said.
Still, Bujarska has felt a strong sense of community among her friends and acquaintances at the U of C.
After word of the shooting got out, friends who knew she was from DeKalb were very supportive, she said.
“The moment I walked into my dorm, everyone was talking to me about it, and my R.A. came and talked to me about it,” she said. “My adviser wrote me an e-mail, and that was really nice. She told me that if I needed to take some time off from classes, she could definitely arrange that.”
Although there has been relatively little visible U of C response to the NIU shootings, the administration has worked to contact students, faculty, and staff who may have been more directly affected by the incident.
Yesterday, Student Government held a noontime vigil on the main quad to remember the victims of the shooting. About two dozen people attended.
Although the number of students from DeKalb at the University is small, a larger number of affected University members was made up of staffers who may have had children studying at NIU, said Julie Peterson, vice president for communications.
After compiling a list of students, faculty, and staff who may have been affected, administrators sent out e-mails offering support and reminding them of campus resources available to help them cope with the incident, said Martina Munsters, deputy dean of students in the University for student affairs.
The Office of the Vice President and Dean of Students in the University has offered to facilitate gatherings of students especially touched by the shootings, but as of yet it has not received any requests, Munsters said.
The incident at NIU has raised familiar questions on the U of C campus, as it has on campuses across the country, about the level of preparation that administrators can take to prevent or respond to emergency situations such as Thursday’s killings. Since the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University that left 32 people dead last April, many universities, including the U of C, have implemented emergency response plans to handle such situations and have struggled with questions of how best to detect students who could pose a potential risk.
According to Munsters, her office advises faculty, academic advisers, and residential staff on how best to approach the situation of a potentially troubled student.
Following the November murder of graduate student Amadou Cisse south of campus, Vice President and Dean of Students Kim Goff-Crews sent a memo to faculty members offering tips on counseling bereaved students.
“Students do talk to faculty sometimes, and therefore faculty might hear things that others of us don’t necessarily hear,” Munsters said, adding that the University’s main goal is to continually remind students that maintaining contact with available counselors can be an effective way of overcoming a difficult emotional period.
In preparation for an emergency like the NIU and Virginia Tech shootings, however, the University’s Emergency Management Committee has been actively developing strategies for effective response and dissemination of information.
Administrators at Virginia Tech were criticized for not responding quickly to reports of the gunman or informing the student population soon enough of the impending danger.
Minutes after the incident at NIU last week, administrators implemented an emergency plan that they had developed since the Virginia Tech shooting, disseminating alerts to cell phones via recorded and text messages and through e-mail.
At the U of C, a similar plan is in place to respond to campus emergencies. In November, the University unveiled a new emergency management website that lays out emergency response plans and that, in the event of an emergency, will serve as a central source of information and updates in the hours and days after an incident.
In recent months and in an e-mail to the campus community Friday, the University has encouraged members to sign up for cAlert, an emergency notification system similar to the one used by NIU following Thursday’s shooting. In the event of an emergency, it will update those who have signed up through text messages, voicemails, and e-mail.
Following Cisse’s murder, the University received some criticism for waiting 9 hours to send out a cAlert notification.
Before last week’s incident, about 7,700 people had signed up for the service. Since then, about 600 more have signed up, Peterson said.
Although signing up for the service is optional, Peterson said that administrators have considered requiring students to sign up.
“The challenge of course is when you tell people they have to sign up, if they really don’t want to…they find a way to nominally satisfy you, but they actually sabotage you” by providing false information such as phone numbers or e-mail addresses, Peterson said.
“The question is could an opt-out system be as effective?…We’re still thinking through those questions,” she said.
According to Peterson, who telephoned University of Chicago Police Department chief Rudy Nimocks after the NIU shooting, Nimocks assured her that “they are confident that as much as you can be prepared for something like that, they are prepared.”