The U.S. Secretary of Education has reinstated fines against Virginia Tech for violating federal law and failing to issue a timely warning in the midst of the April 16, 2007, shootings.
The ruling, issued Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is the latest in a series of appeals which began when the DOE released a report in May of 2010, officially finding Tech's actions during the massacre violated the Clery Act.
The Clery Act is a code of federal regulations regarding the crime reporting around campuses. The act applies to all schools that accept federal financial aid for their students. Under the law, schools must disclose an emergency response plan and alert the campus community to certain crimes in a timely manner. The act does not define “timely."
Duncan overruled a previous finding by a DOE administrative court, instating a $27,500 fine which had been previously dropped.
The fines had been nullified in an administrative law court of the DOE in March. Judge Ernest Canellos found Tech had met its responsibility of sending out a timely warning and cleared the school of all fines.
Canellos determined an email sent to the university community at 9:26 a.m. the morning of the shootings qualified under the Clery Act and contained “sufficient information to put the community on notice as to the incident.”
Tech published a timely warning policy in its annual Clery Act security report which gave the Tech Police Department authority in issuing warnings. However, an administrative policy published on the university's website assigned the same responsibility to university relations.
Canellos chose not to fine the university for this discrepancy, saying it would not be “in keeping with the purpose of a fine action to penalize the institution for a technical deviation from its stated policy.”
Additionally, Canellos said the case was the most emotional trial he had ever presided over.
Canellos' March ruling was appealed by Federal Student Aid, FSA, leading to the most recent reversal by Duncan.
Duncan argued Tech's warning, issued more than two hours after the initial shootings, was not executed on a reasonable basis, agreeing with the FSA's argument that the email was not sent within a time frame that ensured the campus community had sufficient time to react.
According to Duncan's ruling, the university was “confronted with the distinct possibility the gunman was armed and still at large. Faced with this possibility, (Tech) should have resolved any doubts it had regarding the timing of the warning by issuing (it) before 9:26 a.m.”
Duncan's ruling also found that Tech violated the Clery Act because of it's unclear policies, saying that universities should not have multiple timely warning policies that are inconsistent.
University Spokesperson Larry Hincker released a statement Friday in response to the decision.
“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,” he said.
Hincker also disagreed with what he called Duncan's “off the mark” conclusion university policies were inconsistent and undisclosed.
The VTV Family Foundation released a statement Saturday in support of Duncan's decision.
“VTV is pleased that this issue has been resolved and that we — and all members of the Virginia Tech community — can now continue on together in our efforts to make colleges and universities safer,” the statement said.
However, it's unlikely the issue has come to complete resolution. Tech may still appeal, and the decision rests with President Charles Steger and legal representation from the office of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
According to the statement from Hincker, there is a high possibility of further litigation in federal court and Steger plans to recommend an appeal.