NEWS

NIU set to reopen after threats

Geri Nikolai

Semester exams and the normal routine of “finals week” were to resume at Northern Illinois University this morning after officials determined that a message scrawled on a bathroom wall was not an “imminent threat.”

The message, written Saturday night, made reference to the April 16 Virginia Tech shooting that left 33 people, including the assailant, dead. The note implied that something similar would occur at NIU’s Holmes Student Center on Monday.

Officials shut down the campus Monday but said late in the day that normal operations, including exams, would resume today with more police on campus than usual. That decision was announced on the NIU Web site after a 2 p.m. meeting of the crisis team, which included police and campus officials.

“Investigators were encouraged,” Melanie Magara, a spokesman for NIU, told the Register Star. “They felt they had identified some leads and felt that the danger they really thought presented itself 24 hours ago was not at the same level. It is not what they term ‘imminent danger’.

“They felt comfortable suggesting we reopen,” said Magara.

She said police gave no information on whether they had suspects or if they think the perpetrator was a student.

“They have not shared details but, given the breadth of investigatory powers involved, it’s safe to say they’ve covered every possible angle on this,” she said.

Magara said NIU hopes there will be an arrest. Local campus police, as well as state and federal agencies are working on the investigation, Magara said.

The message was discovered about 11 p.m. Saturday, reported immediately to residence hall managers and to campus police before midnight, Magara said.

The university released the full text of the bathroom wall note.

“We felt it was very important to be quick and thorough about communications,” said Magara. “By the time we had contacted students and staff, media calls were coming in from people who had seen the Web.”

Word spread quickest via word-of-mouth, said Magara. On Monday, students, parents and the media made more than 1,000 phone calls to the campus, which opened five “hot line” numbers.

The nature of the calls changed as news got out, said Brandi Hephner LaBanc, NIU student affairs staffer manning one of the lines. “We heard a lot of concern about safety on campus, and that has now (Monday night) shifted to final exams and how everything will be handled.”

The university scheduled exams Friday to make up for those missed Monday.

Students who cannot take them on Friday because of jobs or travel schedules will work with their teachers to make other arrangements, Magara said.

“The idea is to be flexible and compassionate,” she said. “We are not encouraging people to stay away but trying to accommodate those for whom this has been a sufficiently upsetting experience as to render them unable to complete finals.”

Additional police will be on campus, including in the residence halls, to provide security and calm student fears the rest of the week, she said. Residence halls will be on “late night” procedures, meaning only students registered in the dorm with an ID card may enter. They may bring friends, and all will be screened by front desk staff.

For the most part, students agreed with the decision to close school Monday, although it complicated their plans for leaving this week for winter break. An online poll by the student newspaper, the Northern Star, showed 64 percent of 740 responding students thought the decision was right. And six students interviewed by the Register Star agreed. The paper talked to all of them before word was out about reopening campus today.

Jackie Manfre of Algonquin, who lives in the dorm complex where the note was found, was considering staying at a friend’s apartment Monday night.

“I’m a little nervous about it,” said Manfre, 18. “My mom called me freaking out about it Sunday night, and I was up early today because my parents have been calling.”

“I’m pretty much trying to stay in my room just in case anything happens,” said 19-year-old Kendal Curtis of Hillside. “You never know what’s going to happen. You have to take precautions.”

Rachel Knouse of Louisville, Ky., and Carolyn Guido of New Orleans, found out about the note when residence hall managers began knocking on students’ doors Sunday night. Both have to reschedule exams now moved to Friday because they have plane tickets to go home.

“Some people are more scared than others. Some of our African-American friends went to motels last night,” Knouse said.

Guido estimated half the students on her floor in the dorm went home or found another place to stay Sunday night.

Sheba Ajmal, 18, of Calumet City, figured the postponement of finals gave her more time to study, but she was hoping it would achieve something more. NIU is a racist campus, she said, adding that she hoped that reference in the note would open people’s eyes. Black men in particular, Ajmal said, are subjected to such things as being pulled over by police for no good reason.

NIU has 25,000 students. About 13 percent are black, 7 percent are Hispanic and 6 percent are Asian, Magara said.

“Clearly, the inclusion in the threat of a racist slur had specific implications for our black students,” Magara said. “We know they were concerned. A lot of efforts were made to reach out and listen and try to allay those fears, and that will continue.”

Magara said she was told about 150 students had gone home Sunday. Many others left the dorms Sunday but were returning Monday night as word spread that school would reopen, she said.

NIU President John Peters did not return a phone call to the Register Star Monday. A university press release said he met with groups of campus leaders and students in residence halls to listen to concerns and report what the school was doing. NIU also made counseling services available.

Staff writer Geri Nikolai can be reached at 815-987-1337 or gnikolai@rrstar.com.

What happened at NIU

According to Melanie Magara, assistant vice president for public affairs:

10-11 p.m. Saturday: One or more people wrote a note on the wall of a women’s bathroom in the Grant Tower D residence hall. The note warned that “things will change most hastily ...

“Tell those (a slur for African-Americans) to go home,” it read. “ME/OUT... Die Sem Burr 10th ... Hmz Sdn Cr...” Authorities believe that meant Dec. 10, Holmes Student Center, the student gathering place on campus. Underlined letters in the note spell out the word “watch.”

Under the note, in what appeared to be different handwriting, was this comment: “What time? The VA tech shooters messed up w/ having only one shooter...”

11 p.m.: Note discovered and Grant Tower officials notified.

Before midnight: Campus police called. They take pictures and begin investigation, including interviewing students in the hall.

Sunday morning: University officials make plans for a 2 p.m. crisis team meeting while police continue investigation.

2 p.m.: Meeting held and police say they believe threat is credible. Decision is made to close campus Monday and reschedule final exams.

3:30 p.m.: Word goes out on the university Web site, in emails and voice mails of every student and faculty member whose Web address and phone number is known to the college.

10 a.m. Monday: Campus is quiet, even eerie, with ice crusting over everything, heavy fog hanging low and few students outside. Of the handful of vehicles moving about on campus, many are police cars. Crisis team meets and says it will regroup in the afternoon to make decision about school today.

2 p.m. Monday: Investigators say they have leads indicating the threat is not credible. NIU officials say regular operations will resume today, with extra police presence until the school closes Friday for the holidays. The police investigation continues.