Virginia Tech seeks to block $55,000 fine

December 7, 2011 - 6:40 AM
Virginia Tech Shootings

FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2008, file photo Suzanne Grimes holds up a picture of her injured son, Virginia Tech shooting victim Kevin Sterne, during a Senate Courts of Justice committee hearing on a bill to close the gun show loophole at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Virginia Tech will begin making its case Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011, before an Education Department judge, hoping to erase a government levied fine for acting too slowly in notifying students, faculty and staff and therefore in violation of a federal law requiring timely warnings when there are safety threats. Grimes is scheduled to testify. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — More than four years after the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the horrors of that day on the Virginia Tech campus are about to be relived in court.

An administrative judge is to begin hearing testimony Wednesday on whether the school should pay $55,000 in fines in connection to the 2007 shooting rampage on its campus that left 33 dead, including the shooter.

University officials and families of the victims are among those expected to testify.

The Education Department says Virginia Tech was too slow in notifying students, faculty and staff of the safety threat on April 16, 2007. It says the school violated the law by waiting more than two hours after two students were fatally shot in a dorm before sending out a warning by email. By that time, student gunman Seung-Hui Cho was chaining closed the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more people and then himself. The department also says the email was too vague because it mentioned only a "shooting incident" but did not say anyone had died.

Specifically, the university faces charges of failure to issue a timely warning and failure to follow its own procedures for providing notification.

The university says it acted appropriately in how it notified the campus that day and has exercised its right to an appeals hearing. It says that it followed standard protocols in place on campuses then and that the department is holding it to a higher standard than was in place at the time.

At the time the email was sent, the university has argued, it was believed that the two students were shot in an isolated domestic incident and that the shooter was no longer on the campus. The school also contends it had planned a news conference to discuss the dorm shootings until the later shootings intervened.

The hearing before an Education Department administrative judge, Ernest C. Canellos, is expected to last two or three days. Canellos is not expected to issue a ruling until after the hearing.

The fines by the Education Department were levied under a 1990 law known as the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to provide warnings in a timely manner and to report the number of crimes on campus. The law was named after Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered in her dorm room by another student in 1986. The maximum fine per violation under the law is $27,500. Institutions can also lose their ability to offer federal student loans, but that has never happened.

An appeals hearing in Clery Act cases is rare. Experts say institutions typically agree to fines and take corrective action or reach an agreement with the Education Department.

The Clery Act has gotten recent attention because of sex scandals at Penn State and Syracuse universities.

At Penn State, the department is conducting an investigation into whether the university failed to report incidents of sexual abuse in connection to allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. An Education Department spokesman has said the department is also reviewing whether a similar investigation will take place at Syracuse. Three men, including two former ball boys, have accused former assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine of molesting them as minors.

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Kimberly Hefling can be followed at http://twitter.com/khefling

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Online:

Virginia Tech: http://www.vt.edu/

VTV Family Outreach Foundation: http://www.vtvfamilyfoundation.org

Clery Act: http://tinyurl.com/82kvc52

Security on Campus: http://www.securityoncampus.org