Virginia Tech fined $55K for response to shootings

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – We're learning more about the fines and violations imposed on Virginia Tech today by the U.S. Department of Education. The eight page explanation letter was mailed out to the university today.

The university would have to submit both a written request for a hearing and written material as to why the fine should not be imposed. The Department of Education considered the size of the university when determining the exact amount of the fine.

March 29th 2011, nearly four years since the shooting at Virginia Tech, today the U.S. Department of Education found that the university did not notify students in a timely matter about the situation. The university could have to pay $55,000 in fines as part of the violations.

"Timely notice is a very subjective thing," said legal analyst Steve Benjamin. "The Department of Education made their own conclusion that the two hour delay in this case did not represent timely notification."

Benjamin, is weighing in about just what the violations and fine could mean for the university. The violations come as the jury trial is scheduled to begin in just a few months.

"That is one of the things that will be at issue in the civil trial this September but it will not be evidence that can be introduced," said Benjamin.

The letter mailed out to the president of Virginia Tech clearly explains why those fines were imposed. It also lets the university know exactly how long they have to appeal the decision. The letter states "…bloody footprints led away from the bodies strongly indicated that the shooter was still at large." and that "…thousands continued to travel on campus without warning." The two fines of just over $27,000 each are the maximum allowed by federal law.

"There is no reason that the university would not appeal this and I would rather expect that they would," said Benjamin.

The university must appeal the decision by April 29th of this year otherwise the fines will stick.

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Virginia Tech to Appeal Department of Education Fine 

Attribute to Larry Hincker, Associate Vice President for University Relations

BLACKSBURG, March 29, 2011 – The U.S. Department of Education has elected to levy a fine on the university for actions on the morning of April 16, 2007, which the Department of Education has ruled to be in violation of the Clery Act.

Virginia Tech respectfully disagrees and will appeal this action. As we noted before, neither the Department of Education nor the Clery Act defines "timely." The university actions on April 16 were well within the standards and practices in effect at that time.

The department's own compliance guidelines had illustrated 48 hours as an acceptable timely notification timeframe. Other Clery guidance, as well as industry practice, calls for notices to be released within several hours or days. Yet, from Department of Education's new perspective, issuance of a campus notice two hours after a crime has been committed is too long. The higher education community has now been informed that timeliness is situational and will be determined by Department officials after the fact.

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. These actions were validated by one of the nation's most experienced campus law enforcement professionals, Dolores Stafford, a foremost expert on the Clery Act opined that the university notification did not violate the timely warning provision.

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.

We provided to the department numerous examples of assaults and murders on other university campuses in which their campus notifications far exceeded in time Virginia Tech's April 16 notice. Examples include:

University of Portland May 2001: A student was killed in a dorm during summer session. An e-mail was sent out that evening, approximately eight hours after the incident.

  • Tennessee State University 2005: A shooting occurred in the evening, and a mass e-mail was sent to the campus community the following morning.
  • University of South Florida February 2006: A graduate student was shot at night, and no community crime alert was issued.
  • Virginia Wesleyan College October 2006: A security officer was killed in the evening. The administration sent an e-mail the next morning to the college community.
  • Norfolk State University March 2007: A student was stabbed. The campus community first learned about the incident through the media, and a campus-wide notification was not issued because it was considered an isolated event.
  • University of Memphis October 2007: A student was shot, and a safety alert was issued the following day.

Also, in the Department of Education's second finding they determined that issuance of the campus notice by the university communications office on the morning of April 16 rather than the university police department, which was actively engaged in a crime scene investigation, constitutes a violation of the law. We find it hard to comprehend that the campus communication office should not be responsible for communications when the police are engaged in a crime scene investigation.