RICHMOND, Va. – A judge has ruled that the U.S. Department of Education wrongly concluded that Virginia Tech violated federal law in its response to the campus massacre that left 33 people dead in 2007.
Administrative Judge Ernest Canellos dismissed a $55,000 fine against the school and determined that the university’s actions on April 16, 2007, didn’t violate the Clery Act, which requires schools to issue timely warnings of campus threats.
At issue was whether the Blacksburg school waited too long to alert the campus by email of a possible safety threat after two students were fatally shot in a dormitory. By that time, student Seung-Hui Cho was chaining the doors at Norris Hall, where he killed 30 students and faculty members before committing suicide. The Education Department said the email that went out more than two hours after the dorm shootings was too vague because it mentioned only a “shooting incident” but didn’t say anyone had died.
It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
“This was not an unreasonable amount of time in which to issue a warning. ... if the later shootings at Norris Hall had not occurred, it is doubtful that the timing of the email would have been perceived as too late,” the ruling said.
The decision comes about two weeks after a jury in a wrongful-death lawsuit found the university was negligent in its actions on the day of the mass shootings. The lawsuit was filed by parents of two slain Virginia Tech students. The state is considering whether to appeal.
Virginia Tech had appealed the fine issued by the Department of Education. It argued at a hearing in Washington in December that it complied with the law based on the best practices at the time.
The ruling by Canellos doesn’t necessarily end the case, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan has the final say at the agency level. Virginia Tech could then appeal in U.S. District Court if it were unhappy with Duncan’s final decision
University spokesman Larry Hincker said Friday school officials are satisfied by the decision overturning the ruling but that sadness remains about the slayings nearly five years ago. The shootings resulted in the development of new higher education laws, policies and practices.
“We hope that lessons from this unforeseeable crime will continue to inform the practices affecting campus safety throughout the nation and the world,” Hincker said in a statement.
The Education Department had no immediate comment Friday.
Lori Haas, whose daughter, Emily, was wounded in the rampage, said Friday she was incredulous about the judge’s determination.
“Frankly I’m appalled,” Haas told The Associated Press. “The families have contended from day one that the administrators making decisions that day failed to protect the staff and students on campus by not informing them of a gunman on the loose,” she said.
Haas said university officials shirked “their greatest responsibility, to protect the safety of students and staff.”
The Clery Act requires colleges and universities to provide warnings in a timely manner and to report the number of campus crimes. The 1990 law is named after Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student who was raped and killed by another student in 1986.
“For us, this appeal was not about the fines as much as it was about the arbitrary way the U.S. Department of Education tried to apply the law against a school that responded reasonably while an unforeseen and unprecedented crime was occurring on campus,” Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said Friday in a statement.
Hefling reported from Washington.