By Lyndsey Layton
April 17, 2014
Virginia Tech has paid $32,500 to satisfy federal fines lodged by the U.S. Department of Education, which charged that the university did not adequately warn its campus community at the beginning of a 2007 rampage that became one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
The university paid the penalty in February after Education Secretary Arne Duncan ruled that Virginia Tech had violated the Clery Act, a 1990 federal law that requires colleges and universities to provide timely warnings about a range of crimes, including homicides. The Associated Press first reported the payment Wednesday, the seventh anniversary of the shootings.
Institutions are required to notify their campus communities about a “significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or employees occurring on the campus.”
In 2012, Duncan fined Virginia Tech $27,500 for a violation of the law after finding that the school failed to promptly warn the campus in 2007 when a gunman was on the loose. In January, Duncan added a second fine of $5,000 after determining that the university had inconsistent policies on the timely warning of safety threats and failed to disclose one of them as required by the Clery Act.
On the morning of April 16, 2007, student Seung Hui Cho shot a man and a woman in a dormitory; both died from their wounds. Police initially believed the case was a domestic dispute and that there was no threat to the rest of the university, so school officials did not warn the rest of the community.
By the time Virginia Tech officials sent a warning hours later, Cho had stormed through Norris Hall, killing 30 others and himself.
The families of two of the slain students successfully sued the university, arguing that had it warned the campus immediately after the initial slayings, it might have prevented the additional deaths and injuries.
But in November, Virginia’s Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling and sided with Virginia Tech, saying the facts of the case were not strong enough to “conclude that the duty to protect students against third party criminal acts arose as a matter of law.”
Duncan concluded the opposite and ordered the federal fines.
“It is alarming that [Virginia Tech] argues that it had no duty to warn the campus community after the Police Department discovered the bodies of two students shot in a dormitory, and did not know the identity or location of the shooter,” Duncan wrote in his decision. “Indeed, if there were ever a time when a warning was required under the Clery Act, this would be it.”
The university considered a legal challenge to the fine but ultimately decided to pay it, said Lawrence G. Hincker, associate vice president for university relations. “While we believe that the [U.S. Department of Education’s] actions against Virginia Tech are inconsistent with their earlier guidance and policy, further litigation was not prudent in light of the various costs — emotional impact on the community, time lost, as well as financial,” Hincker wrote in an e-mail.
The $32,500 fine Virginia Tech paid is less than the maximum $55,000 penalty that could have been levied, and it is one of the smallest fines imposed on an institution for Clery Act violations in the past 15 years.
In the other case resolved this year, Oregon State University agreed to pay $220,500 in fines after the Education Department determined that it had provided “extremely inaccurate” crime data for its Corvallis campus, significantly underreporting violations including a sex offense, an aggravated assault and numerous burglaries, auto thefts, and liquor law and weapons violations in 2007.