Published March 29, 2011
RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia Tech will have to pay the maximum $55,000 fine for violating federal law by waiting too long to notify students during the 2007 shooting rampage but will not lose any federal student aid, the U.S. Department of Education announced Tuesday.
Department officials wrote in a letter to the school that the sanction should have been greater for the school's slow response to the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, when student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 students and faculty, then himself.
The $55,000 fine was the most the department could levy for Tech's two violations of the federal Clery Act, which requires timely reporting of crimes on campus.
"While Virginia Tech's violations warrant a fine far in excess of what is currently permissible under the statute, the Department's fine authority is limited," wrote Mary Gust, director of a department panel that dictated what punishment the school would receive for the violation.
The university avoided the potentially devastating punishment of losing some or all of its $98 million in federal student aid. While that's possible for a Clery Act violation, the department has never taken that step and a department official said Tuesday it was never considered for Tech.
University officials have always maintained their innocence and said they would appeal the fine, even though it's a relatively small sum for a school of more than 30,000 full-time students and an annual budget of $1.1 billion. The amount would cover tuition and fees for one Virginia undergraduate student for four years, or two years for an out-of-state undergrad.
"We believe that Virginia Tech administrators acted appropriately in their response to the tragic events of April 16, 2007, based on the best information then available to them at the time," spokesman Larry Hincker said in a statement.
The Clery Act requires colleges and universities that receive federal student financial aid to report crimes and security policies and provide warning of campus threats. It is named after Jeanne Ann Clery, a 19-year-old university freshman who was raped and murdered in her dormitory in 1986.
Her parents later learned that dozens of violent crimes had been committed on the campus in the three years before her death.
The Education department issued its final report in December, finding that Virginia Tech failed to issue a timely warning to the Blacksburg campus after Cho shot and killed two students in a dormitory early that morning in 2007. The university sent out an e-mail to the campus more than two hours later, about the time Cho was chaining shut the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more students and faculty, then himself.
That e-mail was too vague, the department said, because it referred only to a "shooting incident" but did not mention anyone had died. By the time a second, more explicit warning was sent, Cho was near the end of his shooting spree.
"Had an appropriate timely warning been sent earlier to the campus community, more individuals could have acted on the information and made decisions about their own safety," the department said in its letter.
A state commission that investigated the shootings also found that the university erred by failing to notify the campus sooner. The state reached an $11 million settlement with many of the victims' families. Two families have sued and are seeking $10 million in damages from university officials. That case is set for trial this fall.
Virginia Tech argues that, relying on campus police, it first thought the shootings were domestic and that a suspect had been identified so there was no threat to campus. The university argued that the Department of Education didn't define "timely" until 2009, when it added regulations because of the Tech shootings.
Hincker, the university spokesman, outlined six other serious incidents at other college campuses before and after the Tech shootings in which notifications were not given for hours, or in some instances the next day, and the schools were not punished.
"The only reason we want to appeal this is that it gives us the process to explain how a notice given on one campus can be OK if it's this long, and a notice given on another campus is not OK if it's this short a time period," he said. "As best we can tell, it's whatever DOE decides after the fact."
The education department rebuffed that argument, saying officials should have treated it as a threat because the shooter was on the loose.
Through its appeal, Hincker said the university hopes to find out how the department came to its conclusion. School officials were never interviewed, he said, and the department refused to share materials or respond to Freedom of Information requests sent by the school.
If the school loses the appeal, it could fight the fine in court. The money goes back to the Department of Education.
Several victims' family members maligned Tech for saying it would appeal.
"This is in black and white," said Suzanne Grimes, whose son Kevin Sterne was injured in the shootings. "They're going to spend more money appealing it than just paying the fine, because they do not want to admit they did anything wrong."
Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was shot but survived, said she was not surprised by the maximum fine.
"I feel like it's par for the course, if you will, for what they are allowed to do," she said. "I think it is a woefully, woefully, woefully sad amount of money for the staggering loss of life."
Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin also was injured, said even a smaller fine would have accomplished a purpose.
"The bottom line is just having a monetary amount points out what they did was wrong," he said.
"There's really no way you can replace 32 people, or even seek to equate that with money. I'm not too worried about the amount. Even if they charged them a dollar, it would have done the same thing."
Only about 40 schools have come under review for Clery violations in the 20 years that the law has been in place. The largest fine to be levied was $350,000 against Eastern Michigan University for failing to report the rape and murder of a student in a dormitory in 2006.
S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security On Campus, a nonprofit organization that monitors the Clery Act, said it's "a shame" the department had only really began fining schools for noncompliance in 2005.
"If the Department of Education had sent a stronger message about having to follow the law and that something faster would be expected sooner, the shootings at Virginia Tech may have never happened," Carter said.