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Ill. college campus divided over fate of building where gunman killed 5 students

Sunday, April 6, 2008

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Yellow police tape and wooden barricades no longer block the entrance to Northern Illinois University's Cole Hall, but it remains empty nearly two months after a gunman killed five students and himself there.

With the painful memories still fresh at the university in DeKalb, students and faculty avoid the brick building.

But as the campus of 25,000 students continues to grapple with Steven Kazmierczak's Valentine's Day killings that also left 18 wounded, it is, at the same time, struggling to decide on the fate of Cole Hall and how to memorialize the slain students.

University president John Peters initially wanted to tear down Cole and build a memorial in its place. Some students wanted the building razed, arguing that they should not have to face tragedy on a daily basis.

"Even if they did renovate it, and the classroom was different, I couldn't sit there and ... know that six people lay there dying on that ground and be able to concentrate," Kristen Highland said.

"It wouldn't be fair for me to have to go into that building again," the 22-year-old visual communication major said.

Others argue razing the site amounts to burying the past, along with the memory of the dead. They want to honor them by continuing to use the building, either for classrooms or for some new purpose. They often envision a memorial inside.

Amanda Banks said she understands students and faculty are "emotionally torn" by what happened inside, but she believes razing Cole Hall would be like giving into the gunman.

"I think it's perpetuating the problem to tear it down, and I think it's a waste of resources," the 23-year-old math education major said. She said she would favor turning it into an office or multipurpose building.

There is no easy answer for what to do with sites of violence.

Columbine High School's library was destroyed and rebuilt. The Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., bulldozed the schoolhouse where five girls were killed.

Virginia Tech, where a gunman killed 32 students a year ago this month before killing himself, converted its shooting site into a peace center. Officials there remember how difficult it was to navigate their way past last year's killings.

Virginia Tech provost Mark McNamee headed a campus task force that reviewed proposals for how to use the space.

Ideas ranged from restoring classes as usual to turning the building into a memorial or razing it.

The victims' families eventually approved of the peace center plans, which involved altering the space so it no longer resembled classrooms, officials said.

McNamee urged NIU officials to listen carefully to the NIU community and accept that there is "no perfect solution to these very difficult decisions."

"Every building is different, every situation is different," he said, "and I think as long as the process is good and they're comfortable with it, they'll do the right thing."

At NIU, about 65 miles west of Chicago, grief has been overtaken by new stress over out-of-whack class schedules and upcoming finals. But anxiety remains, said the Rev. Marty Marks, a campus minister.

Over the last few weeks, school officials have collected opinions on Cole's fate. More than 800 e-mail responses have poured in. An online petition with more than 1,300 signatures asks the administration to include more student input.

Peters has stepped back from his plan to demolish Cole and build a new structure elsewhere on campus for $40 million. Critics say the school or the state are in no financial shape to replace a perfectly good building.

On Thursday, however, Peters made clear that he never again wants Cole to be used for a major classroom.

Victims' families haven't spoken publicly about preferences for the building's future. Peters said it's not at the forefront of their minds less than two months after the shootings.

While Peters said most students who were in Cole Hall during the shooting never want to return, he also said it's too early to tell if any one course of action is favored overall.

"I'm not going to prejudge that," he said. "I'm going to let the process work and I've got a real open mind on that."

The hope is to have a proposal in to the NIU board of trustees by May so any work can be begin by the summer.

Public health major Megan Plote, 22, wants to keep Cole Hall, but with some kind of memorial inside. However, she understands the impulse to demolish it -- and acknowledges it might be a while before she'd want to attend classes there.

"I'm sure no one, obviously, wants to relive that, and that's what they'll do if they go back in there," she said. "I think my first instinct would be, 'Take it away.' But at the same time, is any good going to come from that?"


Associated Press Writer Tara Burghart contributed to this report from DeKalb.


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