RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – The U.S. Department of Education released a report Thursday saying Virginia Tech violated federal law when they failed to issue a warning in a timely manner in response to the shootings on the campus April 16, 2007.
Under the Clery Act, universities that participate in federal financial student aid programs are required to notify students of crimes and current threats.
The report said ''the university body was not put on high alert by the actions of the university administration and was largely taken by surprise by the events that followed. Warning the students, faculty, and staff might have made a difference."
Virginia Tech disagrees with the report and believes their response was "well within the standards and practices in effect at that time."
Virginia Tech cannot appeal the report's decision. The department will determine fines, if any, at a later date. Virginia Tech can appeal the penalties.
Click here to view the U.S. Department of Education report.
See Virginia Tech's statement below:
We disagree with the U.S. Department of Education ruling that university actions on the morning of April 16, 2007, are in violation of the federal law, The Clery Act, which requires a "timely warning" to a campus community upon knowledge of certain crimes committed on the campus. As we demonstrated in our 72-page response and analysis, we believe that the timely warning actions on the April 16 were well within the standards and practices in effect at that time.
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. These actions were validated by one of the nation's most experienced campus law enforcement professionals and a foremost expert on the Clery Act opined that the university notification did not violate the timely warning provision.
Neither Department of Education nor the Clery Act defines "timely." However, the department's own compliance guidelines illustrate 48 hours as an acceptable timely notification procedure. Additional guidance from the Clery Act, as well as industry practice, calls for notices to be released within several hours or days. Yet, from the Department of Education's new perspective, two hours was too long.
The department says that timeliness is situational. This action provides little guidance to the higher education community. Today's ruling could add even more confusion as to what constitutes a "timely warning" at time when unambiguous guidance is needed. It appears that timely warning is whatever The Department of Education decides after the fact.
We provided to the department numerous examples of assaults, shootings, stabbings, and murders on other university campuses in which their campus notifications far exceeded in time our April 16 notice. Yet, they other institutions were considered compliant.
For example, in May 2001, at the University of Portland a student was killed in a dormitory during summer session. An e-mail was sent out that evening, approximately eight hours after the incident. In 2005, at Tennessee State University a shooting occurred in the evening and a mass e-mail was sent to the campus community the following morning. In October 2006 at Virginia Wesleyan College a security officer was killed in the evening. The administration sent an e-mail the next morning to the college community. In January 2005 at University of Missouri-Columbia a stabbing occurred in a parking garage, and a "Clery Release" was provided the next day, approximately 23 hours later.
It appears the university is being held accountable for a new federal standard that was adopted after the April 2007 shootings. It is inconsistent with regulatory process or traditional jurisprudence to hold Virginia Tech to standards that did not exist at the time or, as portions of this report do, to hold Virginia Tech to a new Clery Act standard that was developed after – and in response to -- the tragic events that took place on our campus. However, both the law and purposeful reasoned analysis require that the actions of that day be evaluated according to the information that was available to the university and its professionals at that time. Anything else loses sight of the unthinkable and unprecedented nature of what occurred.
Early on the morning of April 16, 2007, a shooting occurred in West Ambler Johnson Hall. As the world now knows, the same person responsible for the West Ambler Johnson murders – a student – carried out a mass shooting about 2 ½ hours later in Norris Hall, a separate building across campus. But we know this only from hindsight. Prior to the Norris Hall shootings, all the evidence indicated that a crime of targeted violence had occurred and there was not an ongoing threat. This was not the conclusion of one police department, but three independent agencies.
We expect that we will exercise all available appeal options.
-Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations