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Judge Overturns Fine Against Virginia Tech for Mass Notification Delay in 2007 Shooting

04/02/2012 -

Virginia Tech didn’t violate federal law when it took two hours to notify students of the first shootings in a2007 incident that left 32 people dead before the shooter, Seung Hui Cho, took his own life, ruled the U.S. Department of Education’s chief administrative judge on Friday.

The U.S. Department of Educationfined Virginia Tech $55,000for two violations of the Clery Act relating to the April 16, 2007 shooting. However, Judge Ernest C. Canellos overturned the fine.

Three days after the shooting, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine commissioned a review of the incident to examine the Virginia Tech security program in regard to compliance with the Clery Act and to make recommendations on improvements to Virginia law. The two-year long review found that Virginia Tech “failed to provide a timely warning” and failed to comply with its own warning policy that it had disclosed to students and staff.

The first two shootings occurred at a residence hall around 7:15 a.m.; Police arrived on the scene by 7:24, Virginia Tech’s office of the president was notified by 8:11, and by 8:25 the Virginia Tech Policy Group convened to discuss how to notify the campus. An e-mail was finally delivered to students at 9:26, two hours after the shooting. Canellos said the two hours it took the university to issue its warning "was not an unreasonable amount of time.”

In a letter dated March 29, 2012, notifying Virginia Tech of the $55,000 fine, the Department of Education said, “The facts that the assailant had not been identified, a weapon had not been found at the scene and that bloody footprints led away from the bodies strongly indicated that the shooter was still at large, and posed an ongoing threat to safety…Because Virginia Tech failed to notify students and staff of the initial shootings…thousands continued to travel on campus.”

The Governor’s review panel said if the notification went out earlier, students who travel to campus for early classes would have been notified before leaving. Because of the delay between the first shootings and the initial message, many students didn’t realize there was still an active threat.

“Few anywhere on campus seemed to have acted on the initial warning messages; no classes were cancelled, and there was no unusual absenteeism. When the Norris Hall shooting started [15 minutes after the email alert went out], few connected it to the first message,” according to the official review. Between 9:40 and 9:51 Seung Hui Cho shot 47 additional victims.

Crimes that require timely warning include criminal homicide, sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, arson, liquor law, drug law, weapons possession violations, and hate crimes.

"While incredibly tragic, the fact that it did not come soon enough to possibly protect some individuals from losing their lives does not mean that Virginia Tech’s email was not sent in a reasonable amount of time so as to satisfy the timeliness requirement,’’ Canellos wrote.

Since the 2007 massacre, Virginia Tech’smass notification system has been successful at warning students about violent incidents within the hour.

photo byvirtva/flickr