By Dena Potter
RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia Tech could be fined as much as $55,000 because it broke the law by waiting too long to notify students during a 2007 shooting rampage, according to a federal report issued Thursday.
The U.S Department of Education had found in January that the school violated federal law with its response during the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, but gave Tech a chance to respond to the finding in its preliminary report. In Thursday's final report, federal officials rejected Tech's arguments that it met standards in place at the time.
"While Virginia Tech failed to adequately warn students that day, we recognize that the university has put far-reaching changes in place since that time to help improve campus safety and better protect its students and community," U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
School officials won't face criminal charges for breaking the law, the department said.
The university disputed the findings, and spokesman Larry Hincker said the school likely will appeal if it is sanctioned.
The school could be fined up to $55,000 and could face the loss of federal student financial aid.
However, an expert on the law that requires notification of danger _ known as the Clery Act _ said loss of federal aid is unlikely.
S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security On Campus, said Clery Act reviews are relatively rare: The Tech review was the 35th in 20 years. No school has ever lost federal funding, and the largest fine was $350,000 against Eastern Michigan University for failing to report the killing of a student in a dormitory in 2006.
The department found that the university violated the Clery Act because it failed to issue a timely warning after a gunman killed two students in a dormitory early on April 16, 2007. The school sent out an e-mail about the shootings about two hours later, but by that time student gunman Seung-Hui Cho was chaining shut the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more students and faculty, then himself.
Tech argues that the department didn't define "timely" until 2009, when it added regulations to require immediate notification upon confirmation of a dangerous situation or immediate threat to people on campus.
"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," Hincker said. "Anything else loses sight of the unthinkable and unprecedented nature of what occurred."
But the report says the department has consistently stated that the determination of whether a warning is timely is based on the nature of the crime and the continuing danger to the campus.
"The fact that an unknown shooter might be loose on campus made the situation an ongoing threat at that time, and it remained a threat until the shooter was apprehended," the report said.
A state commission impaneled to investigate the shootings also found that the university erred by failing to notify the campus sooner. The state reached an $11 million settlement with many of the victims' families. Two families have filed a $10 million civil lawsuit against university officials.
One victim's mother said she was glad the university finally faced punishment for its actions, but she took more satisfaction from the inclusion in the report of actions officials took to protect themselves that morning. Victims' families had long wanted those details included in a separate report by the state panel.
"They couldn't fine enough money for what happened that day and how it altered our lives," said Suzanne Grimes, whose son Kevin Sterne was injured in the shootings. "It's more about the truth of what happened. That's what I sought for all these years."
Grimes and other victims' families fought for the state report to include documentation that some Tech staffers informed family members and others about the shootings long before the notice was sent to the rest of campus.
The university says that one official advised her son to go to class anyway, and that another only called to arrange for a baby sitter.
But the federal report notes that a continuing education center locked down, an official directed that the doors to his office be locked, the university's veterinary college locked down and campus trash pickup was suspended after word traveled of the shootings. All of those actions took place before the e-mail was sent to campus.
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"If the university had provided an appropriate timely warning after the first shootings (in the dormitory), the other members of the campus community may have had enough time to take similar actions to protect themselves," the report states.