Va. Tech fined $55K for Clery Act violations

VIRGINIA — TheU.S. Department of Education fined Virginia Tech $55,000 after finding theuniversity in violation of the Clery Act in its response to the 2007 shootingrampage on campus.

The fine follows of the department’s December decision thatVirginia Tech failed to provide a timely warning of the incident to the campuscommunity by issuing an alert two hours after the first shootings occurred.

The department wrote in its Tuesday letter to the university,“Virginia Tech’s violations warrant a fine far in excess” of $55,00, but it isthe maximum fine it is able to give.

The university “respectfully disagrees” and plans to appealthe fine, according to a university news release.

According to the Virginia Tech Review Panel report, on April16, 2007, at about 7:15 a.m., Seung Hui Cho shot two students in a campus dormroom. Police arrived on the scene within 10 minutes. Within an hour of theshooting, Virginia Tech President Charles Steger had been notified that onestudent was fatally wounded, another was in critical condition, no weapon hadbeen found and bloody footprints were found leading away from the crime scene.At 8:25 a.m., a policy group convened to discuss the shootings and how to alertthe campus, and at 9:26 a.m. an email alert was issued to the campus community.Between 9:40 and 9:51 a.m., Cho shot 47 additional victims, killing 30, inNorris Hall, then took his own life.

The Department of Education pointed out that the initialmessage sent to the campus community was vague, mentioning a shooting on campus,but failed to mention a murder or an unidentified killer. Two additionalmessages were sent, one at 9:50 am “with a much more explicit warning” and oneat 10:17 a.m., canceling classes.

The Clery Act is a federal law enacted in 1990, requiring allcolleges and universities that accept federal funding to notify the campuscommunity when certain crimes are brought to their attention. Specifically, theAct requires every covered entity to make “timely reports” to the campuscommunity on certain crimes considered to be a threat to other students andemployees that are reported to campus security or local police agencies. Inaddition to the timely reports, the Act requires that schools provide an annualstatistical report and a daily campus crime log.

“It is essential that institutions provide timely warningsto students and employees with the most accurate and complete informationavailable at the time to best ensure the safety and well being of the campuscommunity,” an education department official wrote in the letter. “[Timelywarnings] should be issued as soon as the pertinent information is available.”

S. Daniel Carter, public policy director of Security onCampus, a national non-profit organization that works to prevent campus crime,said his organization is pleased with the decision.

“We’re glad a strong message has been sent that complyingwith the Clery Act is a serious responsibility, and the failure to follow itwill result in sanctions,” he said.

Virginia Tech’s response to the fine in the news releaseargued there is no definition of “timely” under the Clery Act or U.S.Department of Education guidelines and that Virginia Tech administrators “actedappropriately in their response to the tragic events.”

Virginia Tech also said “it appears the university is beingheld accountable for a new federal standard that was adopted after the April2007 shootings.”

“That is not true,” Cartersaid. “The standards for the timely warning had been on the books since 1990,and the standard was articulated by the U.S. Department of Education in 2005,nearly a full two years prior to the shooting at Virginia Tech. It’s notsomething they’re entitled to an opinion on, it’s a fact.”

Although Virginia Tech listed six other cases whereuniversities issued warnings after a longer duration of time from theincidents, Carter said those cases weren’t reviewed by the Department ofEducation.

“It isn’t like the U.S.Department of Education reviewed them and said that was alright,” Carter said.“Those were simply cases where warnings did go out later, and the Department ofEducation didn’t do anything at all because there was never an investigation,there was never a complaint.”

Carter said this case is the first substantivecompleted review of a timely warning ever conducted by the department—a reasonwhy the strong message is important.

“The fine was warranted andappropriate,” Carter said. “I think this is one of the strongest cases theDepartment of Education has ever had.”