DeKalb, Ill. — Bloody students fleeing in terror. Bodies carried out on stretchers. Candlelight vigils and makeshift shrines. Another campus, another deadly attack with a sickening senselessness that now borders on routine.
Despite a national push to secure schools after the Virginia Tech shootings, the rampage at Northern Illinois University this week proves a gut-wrenching reality: Unless colleges are willing to turn themselves into armed camps, they're helpless against these kinds of attacks.
As word of the shootings rippled throughout the country, students and authorities alike reacted with frustration and — tellingly — resignation.
"I don't think there's anything that could be done," said Brittany Dornack, 21, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota.
NIU employee Jessica Best, second from right, and student Suzanne Mauher for a prayer vigil at Wellspring Chapel for the victims of the NIU shooting in DeKalb, Ill., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
"People do what they feel like they need to do, and I don't think anyone is going to be able to stop them. People will just have to either learn to live in fear ... or they'll just have to not think about it."
The gunman this time, Steven Kazmierczak, a 27-year-old NIU graduate, opened fire Thursday afternoon in a lecture hall, killing five students and injuring more than a dozen others in a rapid-fire assault that lasted just a few minutes. He committed suicide on the stage.
Authorities responded quickly; the first 10 police officers were on the scene in 90 seconds. NIU launched its emergency alert system — a carefully rehearsed plan developed after Virginia Tech — sending out e-mails and messages on Web sites to notify students that a possible gunman was on campus and they needed to find a safe area.
"We had a plan in place," said NIU President John Peters. "We did everything we could to ensure the safety of this university ... Nothing is perfect, but I believe it did work."
The plan will be reviewed, he said, but it and others like it are response plans, meant to contain the carnage rather than keep it from happening. As NIU Police Chief Donald Grady said, there is no foolproof way to prevent this type of tragedy.
"I wish I could tell you that there was a panacea for this kind of a thing, but you've noticed that there's been multiple shootings all over this country within the past six months," he said. "It's a horrible circumstance, and as much as we do it's unlikely that anyone would ever have the ability to stop an incident like this from beginning."
That sober assessment weighed on the minds of NIU students who piled suitcases and laundry bags into cars Friday and left the nearly empty, snow-covered campus, apprehensive about their eventual return.
"You're scared to go to school lecture halls and I'm going to be looking over my shoulder and skeptical of people coming to class late," said Allison Warren, a 20-year-old NIU student. "You kind of think it won't happen around here. It could happen anywhere. It could happen anywhere and there's no way of really protecting yourself."
NIU, which is spread over 755 acres, illustrates the difficulty in protecting college campuses that have scores, or hundreds of buildings. Locking them, installing metal detectors or putting security personnel in each of them are not considered practical security measures.
The shootings, of course, have renewed questions about the availability of guns — Kazmierczak bought all four guns legally from the same shop in Champaign, Ill. — and the tricky balance in keeping public places accessible but safe.
"People ask the question, 'Can you stop it?' That demonstrates the bigger question: 'Can we stop it anywhere?'" asked Jonathan Kassa, executive director of Security on Campus, a nonprofit group in Pennsylvania. "College and university campuses are not perfect oases. This is not the ivory tower."
Kassa said NIU's plan appears to have prevented more deaths.
"The lesson to be drawn from this is that it could have been worse if people were not prepared," he said. "Colleges and university campuses are unique but they must be seen as communities like everything else."
Still, the freer environment of campuses also can pose security risks, said Ron Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center in California.
"For the most part, college and university campuses are much more wide open to the public," he said. "There's not a lot of screening done for students. There are probably few institutions that screen ... to see if someone coming on campus has a troubled or checkered past."
Others pointed out that violence is not limited to college campuses. In the past two weeks, there have been fatal shootings at a Louisiana vocational college in the urban setting of Baton Rouge, a Missouri city hall and a clothing chain store in suburban Chicago.
"People go crazy whether it's at a school or at a workplace. ... You can't live your life not going to class," said Barbara Coons, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Pennsylvania.
That may be harder to say on campus ripped raw by violence.
"My dad was saying last year, 'I'm really glad you go to Northern where stuff like that doesn't happen,'" said Bryce Lack, a 19-year-old NIU student, referring to the Virginia Tech massacre. "You look at everybody differently now."
Desiree Smith was in the geology class when Kazmierczak opened fire. She dropped to the floor as he squeezed off shots, grabbing another terrified student's leg as a show of support.
She crawled first, then got up and ran for her life.
She doesn't care how common such shootings have become — they make no sense to her.
"I don't understand why you'd want to go to a random place and hurt random people you've never met," she said. ... "I really hate it. I wish we could figure out how to solve this problem because it makes me sick."