Education Department Rules That Virginia Tech Violated Law in Response to 2007 Shootings

December 09, 2010

The U.S. Department of Education issued a final ruling on Thursday that Virginia Tech violated campus crime-reporting law in its response to the shootings there on April 16, 2007.

On that day a student fatally shot two others in a residence hall at approximately 7:15 a.m. The university issued a warning via e-mail at 9:26 a.m. Shortly thereafter, the same gunman began firing shots in an academic building, killing 30 more students and professors, and himself.

The Education Department determined that Virginia Tech failed to issue a "timely warning" as required under the crime-reporting law known as the Clery Act. Its campuswide e-mail, which mentioned a "shooting incident" but not any fatalities, was both too late and too vague, the department said. Also, it said, the university failed to follow its own policy for issuing timely warnings.

Virginia Tech officials responded sharply to those findings. "It appears the university is being held accountable for a new federal standard that was adopted after the April 2007 shootings," Lawrence G. Hincker, associate vice president for university relations, said in a written statement.

The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 2008 required colleges to issue, beyond timely warnings of specific crimes, immediate emergency notifications in the case of active threats to the health or safety of students and employees. Some drafts of the bill included a 30-minute time limit on emergency notification, but campus law-enforcement officials argued that it would generate hasty misinformation and detract resources from a university's response to an incident. The law leaves the definition of immediacy more subjective.

Virginia Tech officials contended that Thursday's ruling would further confuse what constitutes a timely warning. "It appears that a timely warning is whatever the Department of Education decides after the fact," Mr. Hincker said.

The Education Department had issued an initial ruling against Virginia Tech in January, which the university made public in May along with its response. In that response, Virginia Tech listed several shootings and stabbings on or near campuses before 2008 in which colleges either did not issue alerts or waited up to a day.

However, the Education Department contested the university's characterization of those situations and found them incomparable to the discovery of the first two victims at Virginia Tech. That "is precisely the type of event for which the timely warning requirement was intended," the department said, suggesting that such a warning should have been immediate.

The Cost of the Ruling

Thursday's ruling also dismissed Virginia Tech's challenges to several initial findings by the department. The university had disputed the accuracy of statements such as which administrators had what information when, but the department largely maintained its timeline.

Now the Education Department will decide whether to impose fines or other sanctions. Virginia Tech may no longer appeal the findings, but Mr. Hincker indicated that officials would appeal any penalties. For violations of the Clery Act, the department can impose fines of $27,500 and, in theory, suspend a university's federal-aid eligibility.

The ruling may have further costs for Virginia Tech. Still pending is a lawsuit filed by the families of two victims of the shootings there, Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson. The Education Department's findings may be introduced into that case, said Carl W. Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond's School of Law. And in any negotiations toward a settlement, those findings may give the families more leverage, he said.