Updated at 4:33 p.m.
In the first case of its kind, a U.S. Department of Education administrative judge yesterday overturned a $55,000 fine levied against Virginia Polytechnic Institute for its handling of the April 16, 2007 on-campus massacre that left 32 people dead before the shooter committed suicide.
Education Department Administrative Chief Judge Ernest Canellos found that, contrary to the department's earlier findings, the university did issue a warning about a threat on campus in a reasonable amount of time and did not violate provisions of the federal Clery Act in how it managed campus security before and during the shootings.
The case marked the first-ever appeal of a fine issued by the department under the Clery Act, which lays out campus security requirements. Canellos heard arguments at a trial in December, which was held in the ceremonial courtroom of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In yesterday’s decision (PDF), he called it “the most emotional trial that I have ever presided over.”
On the day of the shootings, the university alerted the campus about a possible threat at 9:26 a.m., about two hours after police first responded to reports of two students in critical condition in a dorm room. The shooter, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho, opened fire in another building on campus soon after the message went out. He killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before committing suicide.
Canellos found that two hours “was not an unreasonable amount of time,” given the information available at the time. Police, according to testimony at the December trial, initially thought the first shooting might have been targeted. He found that the department’s guidelines for what constitutes a timely warning are “amorphous,” giving schools wide discretion.
“Yes, the warning could have gone out sooner, and in hindsight, it is beyond regretful that it did not,” Canellos wrote. He added later, “While incredibly tragic, the fact that it did not come soon enough to possibly protect some individuals from losing their lives does not mean that Virginia Tech’s email was not sent in a reasonable amount of time so as to satisfy the timeliness required.”
Virginia Tech Associate Vice President for University Relations Lawrence Hincker, in a written statement, said today that, “While we are satisfied with the ruling that overturns the department’s finding, there is no glee.”
“A horrendous event happened on this campus almost five years ago. Profound sadness remains. We continue to grieve for the families of victims killed or injured by a deranged young man,” Hincker said, adding, “We hope that lessons from this unforeseeable crime will continue to inform the practices affecting campus safety throughout the nation and the world.”
In a written statement, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said that “we are pleased the judge recognized that Virginia Tech's response fully complied with the law.”
“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,” he said.
In a statement, department spokesman Justin Hamilton said that they "will continue to work with Virginia Tech and schools across the country to make sure we're collectively doing everything possible to keep students safe and learning."
"We are aware of the ruling, and the Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid is considering its options. At the end of the day, we all agree that the most important thing we can do as a country is to put safeguards and protections in place that will help prevent a tragedy like this from occurring again," he said.
The VTV Family Foundation, a group created by survivors of the shootings and the families of those killed that advocates on behalf of campus safety issues, released a statement today calling on the department to appeal Canellos' decision.
"It is important that institutions be held accountable for following the standards for campus safety established in federal law," the group wrote. "Upholding this civil penalty will remind governing boards and executive staffs of all institutions of their responsibility for the protection, safety and security of students, faculty and staff."
The department has the option of appealing the decision within 30 days.