Feds: Va Tech Broke Law in '07 Shootings Response

Thursday, 09 Dec 2010 08:20 PM

 

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Federal education officials have rejected Virginia Tech's arguments that its response to a deadly 2007 shooting rampage at the campus met standards in place at the time, echoing previous findings that the university broke the law and should be fined.

The U.S Department of Education found in January that Virginia Tech violated federal law by waiting too long to notify students during the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. But the agency gave the school a chance to respond to the finding in its preliminary report.

The school disputed the findings and said it had improved campus safety since the April 16, 2007 shootings that left 33 dead. In Thursday's final report, the department commended the school for the changes but rebuffed arguments that it acted appropriately after student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed two students in a dormitory early that day.

"While Virginia Tech's commitment to improved timely warning policies and procedures will hopefully make the university a safer place going forward, corrective actions do not diminish the seriousness of the violations," the department said.

School officials won't face criminal charges for breaking the law, the department said.

Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said the school likely will appeal if it is sanctioned.

The school could be fined up to $55,000 and could face the loss of federal student financial aid.

However, an expert on the federal law that requires notification of danger — known as the Clery Act — said loss of federal aid is unlikely.

S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security On Campus, a nonprofit organization that monitors the Clery Act, said reviews based on the law are relatively rare and that the Virginia Tech review was the 35th in two decades. No school has ever lost federal funding, and the largest fine to be levied was $350,000 against Eastern Michigan University for failing to report the murder of a student in a dormitory in 2006.

Carter said he found the university's response troubling.

"Our fundamental goal is not to place blame, but to make sure students are kept safer," he said of the Act. "But their policy arguments would be very detrimental to protecting students all across the country if they were to be accepted."

The department found that the university violated the Clery Act because it failed to issue a timely warning after the gunman killed two students in a dormitory early on April 16, 2007. The school sent out an e-mail to campus about the shootings two hours later, but by that time the shooter was chaining shut the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more students and faculty, then himself.

Virginia Tech argues that the department didn't define "timely" until 2009, when it added regulations to require immediate notification upon confirmation of a dangerous situation or an immediate threat to people on campus.

"Both the law and purposeful reasoned analysis require that the actions of that day be evaluated according to the information that was available to the university and its professionals at that time," Hincker said. "Anything else loses sight of the unthinkable and unprecedented nature of what occurred."

Both Carter and the report say that since 2005 the Department of Education has stated that the determination of whether a warning is timely is based on the nature of the crime and the continuing danger to the campus.

"The fact that an unknown shooter might be loose on campus made the situation an ongoing threat at that time, and it remained a threat until the shooter was apprehended," the report said.

A state commission impaneled to investigate the shootings also found that the university erred by failing to notify the campus sooner. The state reached an $11 million settlement with many of the victims' families. Two families have filed suit and are seeking $10 million in damages from university officials.

One victim's mother said she was glad the university is finally facing punishment for its actions, but she took more satisfaction from the inclusion in the report of actions that Virginia Tech officials took to protect themselves that morning. Victims' families had long wanted those details included in the state panel's report.

"They couldn't fine enough money for what happened that day and how it altered our lives," said Suzanne Grimes, whose son Kevin Sterne was injured in the shootings. "It's more about the truth of what happened. That's what I sought for all these years."

Grimes and other victims' families fought to get included in the state report documentation that some Virginia Tech staffers informed family members and others about the shootings long before the notice was sent to the entire campus.

The university says that one official advised her son to go to class anyway, while another only called to arrange for a baby sitter.

But the federal report notes that after word of the shootings spread but before the e-mail was sent to campus, a continuing education center was locked down, an official directed that the doors to his office be locked, the university's veterinary college was locked down and campus trash pickup was suspended.

"While Virginia Tech's commitment to improved timely warning policies and procedures will hopefully make the university a safer place going forward, corrective actions do not diminish the seriousness of the violations," the department said.

Says the report: "If the university had provided an appropriate timely warning after the first shootings (in the dormitory), the other members of the campus community may have had enough time to take similar actions to protect themselves."

___

Associated Press Writer Steve Szkotak contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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