Published August 31, 2012
RICHMOND, Va. – U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan reinstated half of a fine levied against Virginia Tech, ruling that university officials failed to issue a timely warning on the day of the deadly campus shooting in April 2007.
The Education Department had asked Duncan to reinstate a $55,000 fine that an administrative law judge dismissed in April. The judge had determined that university officials' actions didn't violate the federal Clery Act, which requires schools to issue timely warnings of campus threats.
In a ruling Thursday, Duncan wrote that Tech should pay $27,500 for waiting more than two hours to inform the Blacksburg campus of a fatal shooting of two students in a residence hall. By the time the warning was sent, student gunman Seung-Hui Cho was chaining the doors of a building where he killed 30 additional people before committing suicide.
Duncan said it was alarming that Tech "argues that it had no duty to warn the campus community after the Police Department discovered the bodies of the two students shot in a dormitory, and did not know the identity or location of the shooter."
"Indeed, if there were ever a time when a warning was required under the Clery Act, this would be it."
Virginia Tech President Charles Steger will recommend appealing Duncan's ruling in federal court, the university said in a statement. That decision will be made in consultation with the Virginia attorney general's office, which represented the university in the case.
"Once again, the higher education community has been put on notice that timeliness is situational and will be determined by Department officials after the fact," Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said in the statement. "The federal government has never defined a timely warning and continues to hold universities accountable even when a university's actions are well within the department's own guidelines."
Duncan also ruled that the university should be fined for having inconsistent policies on warnings and for failing to disclose one of them, but he remanded that issue to the administrative law judge to calculate the amount of the penalty.
The university's policy in its 2007 Clery Act security report said campus police would issue warnings, but a separate internal policy that Duncan said was not disclosed to students and employees assigned that duty to the university relations department. A "policy group" of university officials authorized the warning, which the university relations department sent at 9:26 a.m. on April 16, 2007.
"Postsecondary institutions should not have multiple timely warning policies — only some of which are disclosed to the campus community — that are inconsistent with each other," Duncan wrote.
Hincker said Duncan's reasoning "underscores the DOE's unreasonable priority of process over substance," noting that the administrative law judge found that it would be illogical to require police to take time out from investigating a crime to compose the message to be distributed to campus rather than just provide information on which the message is based.
He also disputed Duncan's finding that the internal policy was not disclosed.
"All university policies are public and are promulgated in like manner," Hincker wrote.
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