Virginia Tech’s actions during the April 16, 2007, campus shootings have been deemed violations of federal regulations by the Department of Education, solidifying a stricter interpretation of “timely warning” requirements.
“First, the warnings that were issued by the university were not prepared or disseminated in a manner to give clear and timely notice of the threat to the health and safety of campus community members,” the report said. “Secondly, Virginia Tech did not follow its own policy for the issuance of timely warnings as published in its annual campus security reports.”
Student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 Tech students and faculty in the shootings. His first two victims were killed in West Ambler-Johnston Hall before he left campus and returned to kill 30 more and injure 17 in Norris Hall before committing suicide.
In January, after a 27-month investigation, the Department of Education issued its initial findings on Tech’s compliance with federal timely warning regulations. Tech responded on April 20, and posted the report and response on its Web site on May 18.
The review process allows the Department of Education to consider the university’s response and then issue a final report. The initial investigation was notably lengthy, and many expect the final report to be completed in six to eight months.
If the violations remain in the final report, Tech could face a fine of up to $55,000. The university could appeal the fine, but the findings will be final.
Security on Campus Inc. initially filed the request that led to the investigation. The group was founded by the parents of Jeanne Clery, the namesake of the Clery Act, which was enacted in 1990 and requires universities to report crime statistics and give communities timely warnings of campus crimes. Clery was raped and murdered in her dorm room at Lehigh University in 1986.
The report asserts Tech officials knew enough about the situation to warn the community prior to the first mass e-mail sent at 9:26 a.m. on the day of the shootings.
Tech’s response counters with examples and arguments that a “timely warning” on a college campus has no quantitative definition and has not typically been expected within two hours of an incident.
“The record clearly supports that a ‘timely warning’ is provided at best several hours post incident and normally within 24 to 48 hours,” the response said.
Michael Mulhare, director of Tech’s office of emergency management, prepared the university’s 73-page response. After the report was made public Tuesday afternoon, he said the notion of a “timely warning” was not clearly defined, and his response attempted to show that.
“I think that’s what the report does a very good job of — it demonstrates that the guidance documents provided by the Department of Education refer to timely warning and when you look at what its examples and illustrations of what a timely warning is, it is certainly measured in 48 hours,” Mulhare said. “So, clearly, ‘timely warning,’ prior to the events that happened on our campus, was something that happened in days, not minutes.”
Daniel Carter, Security on Campus director of public policy, pointed to a 2005 clause added to regulations that mandates warnings be issued as soon as “pertinent information is available.”
Carter said that while the emergency notification requirements of the Clery Act were added largely in response to the shootings on Tech’s campus, the university had already looked into faster ways of issuing timely warnings. He said the university had already discussed implementing text message alerts in 2006, prior to emergency notification being part of federal regulations.
According to Carter, the dialogue about text message alerts began after the 2006 incident in Blacksburg when convict William Morva escaped a nearby correctional facility. Tech’s campus was locked down because of fears that Morva may have been headed toward the school.
Tech’s response compares the timeline of April 16, 2007, to the timelines of other universities’ incidents to show examples of other “timely warnings.”
“On September 21, 2007, five months after the Virginia Tech shooting, two Delaware State students were shot on the campus mall,” the response said. “The headline of the cbsnews.com story dated September 22, 2007 was, ‘Delaware State Reacted Quickly to Shooting.’ The story provides a timeline. The shooting was reported at 12:54 a.m., by 2:11 a.m. University officials were meeting to discuss the school’s response and notices were posted on the school web site around 2:40 a.m.”
Tech’s response continues to say that the chairperson of the Virginia Tech Review Panel commended Delaware State on a timely response. It then emphasizes with bold font that the timelines of the two events, measured in minutes, are nearly
Dolores Stafford, a nationally recognized expert on Clery Act enforcement whom Tech brought in as a consultant, wrote in a letter attached to the university’s response that she did not believe Tech violated the federal regulations. She conducted a survey and concluded only 25 percent of universities were issuing timely warnings within one hour
Carter responded that a widespread lack of compliance does not relieve Tech of liability.
“Their defense is right that most other institutions were not issuing warnings in that time frame,” Carter said. “The report from Dolores Stafford says that about a quarter of institutions in 2006 were working within that one-hour time frame. But just because a majority of institutions were not up to speed with the 2005 guidelines, doesn’t mean that wasn’t the law.”
Mulhare said the regulations were not clear about enforcement in situations such as Tech’s, and hopes the response’s arguments will alter the agency’s view of Tech’s actions.
“They demonstrate that there is an appearance that the Department of Education is trying to apply a standard that didn’t exist at the time of the incident,” Mulhare said.
Carter said he was not aware of any other universities that were being reviewed because of violations during that time. He acknowledged a point Stafford made that, “if the events of that day had ended with the two murders in West Ambler-Johnston, it is likely that Virginia Tech would not be responding to this inquiry from the Department of
“The fact that there were consequences from the time frame — that is, quite frankly, why the department took this case,” Carter said.
The example being set through Tech’s case could further advance what Mulhare called the “proliferation” of alert systems similar to Tech’s emergency notification plan. Tech has implemented text message alerts, classroom LED signs and a desktop alert widget since the shootings.
Another point in the university’s response argues Tech officials could not have known the threat level that existed on April 16.
The university letter to the Department of Education said that, “there are many instances in which the Department did not benefit from having all pertinent facts or university operational procedures.”
Mulhare’s response goes on to say that Tech “disputes many of the initial findings of the DOE concerning timely warnings and application of policy.”
“It is the university’s positions that Virginia Tech complied with the Clery Act during the events that occurred on April 16, 2007,” Mulhare wrote.
“DOE’s determination that Virginia Tech’s warning was not timely and inadequate is based on DOE’s knowledge now that a threat existed on April 16, 2007,” the response said. “However, in context, this finding does not fit the known facts early in the morning on April 16, or the law that existed at the time.”
The response claims Tech’s reaction to the initial shootings in WAJ, which occurred around 7:15 a.m. and eventually left both victims dead, was appropriate given the known information. The first warning to the campus community was sent
at 9:26 a.m.
“The potential danger to the campus community was considered,” the response said. “The evidence at the crime scene presented as an act of targeted violence. The crime scene was evaluated by experienced, trained and nationally accredited law enforcement professionals from three jurisdictions (VTPD, Blacksburg Police Department and the Virginia State Police).”
Carter said the policy group, which was a collection of university officials making decisions on warnings, may have believed the suspect had left campus, but they could not have been sure.
“Could anybody have foreseen that 30 more murders would have been perpetrated? No,” Carter said. “But that’s not the point. Was it reasonably foreseeable that an unknown attempted murder suspect at large might have another target? That was a reasonable assumption.”