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Learning from the NIU tragedy
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 3/23/2010 12:00 AM

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Northern Illinois University President John Peters was correct last week when he said a newly released and detailed report on the Feb. 14, 2008, shootings at the DeKalb school that ended in the tragic deaths of five students brought "neither comfort nor closure."

But Peters also is correct that the NIU case, and the circumstances surrounding shooter Steven Kazmierczak of Elk Grove Village, raise significant questions about balancing the rights of people with mental illnesses and the need for safety.

"I think we need a national debate on that," Peters said.

We agree. The NIU case and the 2007 Virginia Tech case, in which a 23-year-old student killed 32 others and himself, are stark reminders of that debate.

Since the shooting, NIU, to its credit, has trained staff members in how to identify and assess threats to safety from people with suspected mental-health problems. It also adopted a policy to remove those students from school until the matter is resolved.

These are part of the 16 recommendations made by the prevention and mental health committee of the state's Campus Security Task Force report, which was released two months after the NIU shootings. The legal committee of the task force also called for colleges and universities to clear up misperceptions of the laws regarding the ability to share information about potentially dangerous students.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2007, after the Virginia Tech shootings, that colleges sometimes are too cautious to use exceptions to privacy laws that give them permission to intervene in case of danger. We believe it's a discussion that should be held on every campus in every state.

Sometimes, as in the NIU case, the signs either aren't there or are well-disguised until it's too late. Peters said the shooter never would have been on their radar screen. He was a model student when he graduated in 2006 - despite a history of mental health issues as a teen. But he transferred as a graduate student to the University of Illinois, and his mother died. Those who knew him back in DeKalb didn't see the worrisome changes. They didn't know the depth of his mental illness, his anger or what one psychiatrist told the Daily Herald was his lifelong isolation.

These types of cases are cautionary tales for school administrators, teachers, parents and students. A 2008 study reported by The Wall Street Journal showed that one in five college-age adults has a personality disorder that disrupts his or her daily life. And fewer than 25 percent actually get help.

Keep an eye out for troubling behavior. Get help for those you know who are having a hard time. Alert authorities and family members if you think the safety of others or of the person in question is in jeopardy. We must learn from these tragic events.