Students were evacuated from Normal Community High School to Eastview Christian Church on Sept. 7, 2012. (Stephanie Pawlowski/WJBC)
By Stephanie Pawlowski
NORMAL - The morning of Sept. 7, 2012 started out as a usual Friday at Normal Community High School.
It was at the end of first period, at approximately 8:05 a.m. that students in the school heard gun shots echo from a second floor classroom.
According to reports, a 14-year-old freshman walked to the front of his health class with his backpack and pulled out a gun, hatchet and a canteen of kerosene, getting the attention of the classroom and holding the students and teacher Derrick Schonauer hostage.
Freshman classmate Sean Kennedy said he initially thought it was a hoax or possibly a school violence demonstration as the boy started asking everyone what each of the items were, but quickly realized the incident was real.
“He put a bullet in the barrel and dropped one. I don’t know how he dropped it, but I saw him pick up a bullet, and that’s when I thought, ‘ Oh no, this is real,” Kennedy said.
Some students were able to escape the classroom and at 8:15, 911 dispatchers started getting calls from the school about shots being fired. The school was placed on lockdown, and it was at that time that parents started getting text messages and calls from students within the school about something going on.
There was a struggle for the gun as Schonauer and some students tackled the gunman and were able to subdue him. Normal Police Chief Rich Bleichner said the teacher was able to detain the student until officers arrived. Kennedy said the incident all happened within about 10 minutes, though he said it seemed much longer than that.
Remarkably, no one was injured during the incident.
Students were pleased with how NCHS and Unit 5 handled the situation. One student described the whole incident like a movie and said everyone moved quickly when Code Red was announced over the speakers.
“I think they did a pretty good job. It was nerve racking for everyone, I mean when we do drills like this we don’t expect, like this will never happen, like I don’t why we do these drills but I’m so glad,” said NCHS student Jessica.
In the days following the incident, Schonauer spoke to the media. He wouldn't talk about what happened in the classroom that Friday. He would only call it scary. He was most happy to be back in class with his students.
"(On the first day back) we had one giant group hug and I told them I loved every single one of them. I was proud of the way they handled it, not just me,” Schonauer said.
Unit 5 Superintendent Gary Niehaus commended Schonauer’s actions.
“Instinctively, we all have a fight-or-flight inside of us and obviously he had the right instinct going at the right time,” Niehaus said.
Niehaus confirmed that Schonauer had a special relationship with the boy going back to his days as a student teacher at George Evans Jr. High, but he didn’t elaborate.
Schonauer was given the Public Service Award at the Red Cross of the Heartland Heroes breakfast this year. Speaking to WJBC's Eric Stock after the breakfast, he said he hasn't talked to the boy since the incident, but said he would like to ask how he's doing.
"I'm still concerned about the kid, worried about him. I'd like to see the come out of this situation for him," Schonauer said.
Gunman pleads guilty but mentally ill
Those charges include armed violence, unlawful use of a weapon, unlawful possession of a firearm and aggravated unlawful restraint. Eight other similar charged were dropped as part of the plea deal. Defense attorney Art Feldman said sentencing ranges from probation until he's 21 to serving time in a detention center until he's 21.
"If he is sent to juvenile prison, they can do treatment in the prison facility or send him to a hospital facility," Feldman said. "Or, if he gets probation, he would be under a term of treatment that would either be inpatient or outpatient."
During a hearing in November, the prosecution presented a handwritten journal found in the home of the accused shooter. The writing was labeled "Plan Delta" and detailed a "revenge plot waiting for approval" from voices in the defendant's head. Experts testified the student was psychotic at the time of the shooting but was aware of the consequences of his actions.
The boy has been examined by two psychologists. Feldman said the boy has a mental illness and is responding well to medication and counseling.
"That's what I plan on presenting in court that he's willing to cooperate with whatever treatment is recommended," Feldman said. "He has been so far and he will continue to do so."
Feldman, the state's attorney's office and Chief Judge Robb are also looking into a legal ruling on violent juvenile offenders. It's possible the boy will have to register as a violent offender against youth with state police and local police when he turns 17 and provide a photo, address and employment for a period of ten years.
"We believe he's eligible, there's some question still about that," Feldman said.
The boy might have to pay restitution to the school. He will be sentenced Jan. 22 at 2 p.m.
Enhanced security measures
Immediately after the incident, Niehaus urged parents and students to be vigilant, to check backpacks and question anything they find suspicious.
In December, the school board approved funding for two-way radios to bolster district-wide communication. Niehaus and the Unit 5 staff found out that instant contact with certain parts of the district, including NCHS, needed to be improved.
"We were dropping calls off our cell phones at important times," said Niehaus. "Internally, at Normal Community and Normal West we also had problems with two-way radios so we put boosters in there as well. Communicating then from the school to evacuation site presented another issue."
The new equipment will connect Unit 5 with police, fire, and ambulance service and will cost the district $270,000 over two years.
In the wake of the September incident, Unit 5 is focused on more district evacuation practice and better connections.
"It gives us a lot of flexibility, it gives us a tower, and it gives us the strength we need throughout the district to really make a big difference in the communication," Superintendent Niehaus said.
Niehaus said he would give the district an A-minus for its handling of the incident. He said the district plans to set up a text messaging system with students to keep them informed, have students and staff carrying cell phones with them while at school and speed up the process of reuniting students with their parents.
"It took us two, three and four hours sometimes to get reunified and that just wasn't something we had ever practiced, there is no way to practice that. It just took an awful lot more time than we had hoped," Niehaus said.
Niehaus said the district would also look to create a central location for the media.
"As far as the press is concerned, when you get into one of those 'where do they need to be, where should they be, how can we help them help us with communication," Niehaus said.
Niehaus said the media played a significant role and performed well.
Niehaus commended police for their swift response in apprehending the gunman, but added that teachers and staff were alarmed to see police entering each classroom with rifles drawn as they made sure the site was secured.
Niehaus said they were grateful that students were able to go back into the school to pick up their belongings the day of the shooting, rather than being kept out of the school for the weekend.
"I think they felt a lot more comfortable than coming back on Monday because they saw the school wasn't any different than what it was," Niehaus said.
Prosecutors said Rodney Kinder, 43, allegedly gave his son a 22-caliber Ruger pistol for Christmas last year, which was then used in the NCHS shooting. Assistant State's Attorney Bill Workman said Kinder also gave the boy a 23-caliber rifle at a later date, which he did not bring to the school.
Kinder was charged because the boy is under 18 years of age and the Ruger was considered a concealable weapon. Kinder was charged for giving the boy the rifle because the child did not have a Firearm Owners Identification Card.
Kinder will appear in court again Jan. 3, 2013 for a status hearing at 9 a.m.