September 04, 2008

Talk to focus on NIU tragedy’s ‘defining moments’

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Debra Pender, who helped the Northern Illinois University community deal with the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day shootings there, will talk about the event’s “defining moments” at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 18, in Wham Education Building’s Davis Auditorium on the Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus.

Pender, a lifelong resident of Southern Illinois and a three-degree graduate of SIUC, received her doctorate in counseling in 2006 and began work as an assistant professor at NIU shortly after. Her speech kicks off the College of Education and Human Services’ new public speaker series.

“The intent of the series is to provide stimulating discussion on topics of interest, not just to our community but to the public as well,” said Dean Kenneth Teitelbaum.

“It complements our Brown Bag Series (initiated last spring and focusing on faculty research areas), which aims to develop an intellectual community, though we are glad to welcome people from off campus who are interested.”

Pender, whose students nicknamed her “Dr. Human” as a result of the work she did following the shootings, credited both her experience with various Southern Illinois social agencies and the training she received at SIUC in dealing with the unthinkable.

“The path I have walked was highly beneficial to being able to meet the challenges of the moment,” she said in a phone interview.

She felt particularly good when, after a vigil for the dead and injured, an upset young man approached her and, upon learning that she was a faculty member, urged her to see to it that professors began carrying guns so they could protect their students.

“I told him I didn’t think that was something I wanted to do but that I could promise to teach people how to help those with mental illness and to work with people who are in crisis,” she recalled.

“At the end of that conversation, he said, ‘You know, you’re pretty good at your job.’ It was beautiful.”

In addition to her talk, Pender will conduct a workshop the following day on preparing for, getting through and dealing with the aftermath of intentionally violent events. Aimed at those first on the scene, education officials and others concerned about “targeted violence,” it will address such topics as hazard planning, threat assessment, crisis communications, intervention selection, triage, treatment and the possibilities for post-trauma growth.

As an example of hazard planning, Pender noted that NIU security officers all had emergency medical technician training.

“That saved lives,” she said. “At the time of the shootings, there weren’t enough medical personnel to go around, so it made a huge difference in the outcome.”

For more information about the workshop, e-mail Kimberly Asner-Self at or call her at 618/453-2311.

Pender said she herself had learned something from a group of NIU peer counselors with whom she talked as they prepared to return to the classroom. Pointing out that they had come of age in an era when school shootings had become common, they told her they had to make a commitment to live their lives in the world as it is. It’s a lesson all can to take heart.

“All we know about this kind of violence is that it continues to evolve at a faster rate than we can figure out how to stop it,” Pender said.

“While it’s important to try to be safe, we need to make a commitment to accept and deal with the fear. We have to go on living, even though there are things to be afraid of.”