Shortly before reports of gunfire yesterday rocked the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University campus, arguments concluded before an administrative judge in the university's challenge to a $55,000 fine over its handling of the April 16, 2007 shootings that left 33 people dead.
The Department of Education had fined the university for two violations of the federal Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to maintain campus security plans and procedures. On the day of the 2007 shooting, the department found that university officials failed to issue "timely" warnings to the campus community.
The university appealed. In the first hearing on a Clery Act appeal, Education Department Administrative Chief Judge Ernest Canellos heard opening arguments on Dec. 7 from attorneys for the university and the Department of Education. The hearing, which took place in the ceremonial courtroom of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, concluded at around 11:30 a.m. on Thursday.
At 12:37 p.m., the university issued an alert that gun shots had been reported on campus. A Virginia Tech Police Department officer, Deriek Crouse, was killed. A second unidentified man believed to be the shooter was also found dead on campus. The Roanoke Times reported Friday morning that ballistics evidence has linked the gun that killed both men.
Canellos is expected to issue a ruling after receiving additional briefs from both sides. Briefs are due on Jan. 30, and Canellos is expected to announce next week his time frame for issuing a decision.
The university, represented by Peter Messitt, a senior assistant attorney general for Virginia, has claimed that the department’s guidelines for what constitutes a “timely” warning are unclear and that the department cannot clarify its standards after the fact. The university also maintains that it acted appropriately based on information it had at the time.
The department found that the university violated two provisions of the Clery Act. First, by failing to disclose an accurate version of its campus security plan ahead of time; and, second, by failing to issue a timely warning on the day of the shooting. The fine represents the maximum $27,500 per violation. Brian Siegel argued for the department.
On April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 students and wounded 17 others before committing suicide. At around 8 a.m., campus police first responded to a report of two students in critical condition in a dorm room. According to the department’s report on the shooting, Cho is believed to have shot the two students at around 7:15 a.m. The campus community was first notified of a shooting at 9:26 a.m.
S. Daniel Carter, public policy director of Security on Campus Inc. – a nonprofit that filed a complaint against Virginia Tech after the shooting – said that the university’s response to the shooting yesterday was a “significant indication” that the campus has strengthened its security protocol since 2007.
“Within six to seven minutes of the first call, and not much more than 20 minutes of the shooting itself, you had campus-wide notifications going out, you had procedures to get into secure campus facilities in place and you had a coordinated multi-agency response to locate the suspect and to secure the campus,” Carter said.
The hearing was the first of its kind. Any precedent set could affect a pending Education Department review of whether Pennsylvania State University complied with the Clery Act in its handling of rape allegations against former football coach Jerry Sandusky.