Judge backs VaTech over its 2007 gunman warning
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Tech received a measure of vindication for its handling of a 2007 campus massacre that left 33 people dead when a judge ruled that federal education officials were wrong to conclude the university's response to the tragedy violated federal law.
In a ruling that became available Friday, Administrative Judge Ernest Canellos dismissed a $55,000 fine against the Blacksburg school and determined that the university officials' actions on April 16, 2007, didn't violate the Clery Act, which requires schools to issue timely warnings of campus threats.
Virginia Tech officials said they were satisfied with the removal of the fine. But university spokesman Larry Hincker said sadness remains about the slayings by student Seung-Hui Cho, the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history.
"There are no winners and losers," Hincker said Friday in a telephone interview. "This is about providing some rational interpretation of what many in higher education thought were some ambiguous guidelines by the U.S. Department of Education."
He said the university hopes lessons from the shootings will continue to influence campus safety policies in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Justin Hamilton, an Education Department spokesman, said the agency is weighing its options. Canellos' ruling Thursday doesn't necessarily end the case. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has the final say at the agency level. Virginia Tech could appeal Duncan's final decision in U.S. District Court.
"We 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," Hamilton said in a statement.
The latest decision stands contrary to previous findings about how Virginia Tech alerted the campus after the gunman killed his first two victims in a dormitory. A state panel that did an extensive review of the slayings in late 2007 and a jury in a wrongful-death lawsuit this month both found fault with university officials' actions.
They determined that Virginia Tech waited too long to issue its email alert of a possible safety threat after the initial deaths. By the time it was sent more than two hours later, Cho was chaining the doors at Norris Hall, where he killed 30 students and faculty members before committing suicide.
Canellos said he accepted that the university's initial conclusion was reasonable — though later proven wrong — that the first reported shootings of two students in the West Ambler Johnston dormitory were a targeted act of violence stemming from a domestic argument that didn't present an ongoing safety threat.
Wendell Flinchum, the university's police chief, had testified the conclusion was based on factors such as the lack of forced entry into the dorm room and the victims' clothing — the woman in pajamas, the man in boxer shorts.
The Education Department "has the burden of proof in this proceeding and it has not presented persuasive evidence that Virginia Tech's conclusion was somehow unreasonable," his ruling said.
Canellos disagreed with the Education Department's determination that the email alert was too vague because it mentioned only a "shooting incident" but didn't say anyone had died. Virginia Tech officials have said they acted based on the best practices in place at the time.
"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.
In the wrongful-death lawsuit, a Christiansburg jury awarded $4 million each on March 14 to families of two students slain in Norris Hall, but Virginia law caps the awards at $100,000 each. The state, which represents the university, is considering whether to appeal.
Parents of some of the shooting victims say they're angry about what they view as school officials' continued attempts to evade responsibility.
"I wonder what it's cost Virginia Tech to save that $55,000. It's just disgraceful," said Andrew Goddard, father of injured student Colin Goddard. "Of course they're going to consider it a vindication, since it's a peppercorn fine in the first place.
"When things go wrong at other universities, the top person's gone," Goddard told The Associated Press.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said in a statement Friday that the issue isn't about the fine, but "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."
Goddard said that while it's true no one could have anticipated Cho's massacre, it's "ludicrous" to think that university officials couldn't have determined that an unknown gunman that just killed two people wasn't a potential danger.
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.
The maximum fine per violation under the Clery Act is $27,500. Institutions also can lose the ability to offer federal student loans, but that has never happened.
The VTV Family Outreach Foundation, which was created by the survivors and families of those killed at Virginia Tech, said Friday in a statement that it is hopeful the review of the case will continue because it is "important that institutions be held accountable for following the standards for campus safety established in federal law."
The case can be viewed online at http://www.ed-oha.org/cases/2011-30-SF.pdf
Hefling reported from Washington.