Proposal to Raze Site of NIU Shooting Stirs Debate

Kevin Smith wants to forget about the Valentine's Day shooting rampage at Northern Illinois University, but the memories are hard to shake.

The 20-year-old sophomore often walks past Cole Hall, where a gunman killed five students before committing suicide. Students still lay flowers outside and cry in front of its doors.

Smith, who was outside the building when the shootings occurred, supports a proposal to tear down Cole Hall and erect a memorial on what he considers "hallowed ground."

But the idea has plenty of critics. Some argue that razing the building would be like trying to bury the past. The best way to honor the dead, they say, would to be continue using Cole Hall to educate.

Others think it would be a waste of tax dollars to tear down a perfectly good building and put up a replacement.

John Puterbaugh, editor of the campus newspaper, the Northern Star, said students are still reeling and haven't focused on what to do about Cole Hall. Classes resumed this week for the first time since the shootings.

"There is no reason to rush this. Nobody is sure of anything at this point," Puterbaugh said Friday. "I just think they could put the brakes on this."

Former graduate student Steven Kazmierczak burst into one of Cole Hall's auditoriums on Feb. 14, carrying at least four guns, and fired dozens of shots into a geology class, killing five and wounding at least 16 people before turning the gun on himself.

University President John Peters this week proposed demolishing Cole Hall by late spring and putting up a memorial in its place. A replacement building on the 25,000-student campus would be about 40 percent larger and include three lecture halls with about 10 classrooms.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich called on state lawmakers to approve $40 million in emergency money for a new building. Senate President Emil Jones supports the idea, but other legislative leaders are still studying it.

Two lawmakers who represent DeKalb, where NIU is located, said they're open to replacing Cole Hall, though they're not backing any particular proposal.

"Nothing has been introduced yet," Sen. Brad Burzynski said. "What that will entail at this point in time will probably not be what the governor envisioned."

Rep. Robert Pritchard said he has received calls from alumni, students and community members.

"People think the governor reacted too quickly and that he's calling for a solution that hasn't thoroughly been discussed so that people can understand it ... to see if the solution matches the need," he said.

The key issue, he said, is figuring out how to meet the university's need for classroom space.

Puterbaugh, the newspaper editor, said university officials may be interested in the replacement building because of the chance to get money after years of limited aid from state government.

"Our administration can't say no," he said. "They don't want to bite the hand that routinely does not feed them."

The university president was not available for comment Friday, his office said.

Puterbaugh pointed to Virginia Tech as an example of what could be done with Cole Hall.

After a student gunned down 32 people and killed himself on campus last year, the Blacksburg, Va., university converted the classroom space into a peace center and interactive learning space. Laboratories, which couldn't be relocated because of the risk of damaging expensive equipment, remain in use.

Similarly, a Winnetka elementary school reopened a day after a woman shot six children, killing an 8-year-old, in 1988. But Columbine High School in Colorado, where 12 students and one teacher were killed in 1999, razed the library where most of the bloodshed took place and rebuilt it at a cost of $3.5 million.