By Dena Potter
RICHMOND, Va. — Nearly four years after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, victims' family members and campus safety advocates say it isn't the fine amount of $55,000 Virginia Tech faces that matters, but that the school finally will pay for the mistakes it made during the rampage.
The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday fined the school for waiting too long to notify students about the shootings on April 16, 2007.
"The bottom line is just having a monetary amount points out what they did was wrong. There's really no way you can replace 32 people, or even seek to equate that with money," said Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin was shot but survived. "Even if they charged them a dollar, it would have done the same thing."
Department of Education officials wrote in a letter to the school that the sanction should have been greater for the school's slow response when student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 students and faculty and then himself. The amount was the most the department could levy for Tech's two violations of the federal Clery Act, which requires timely reporting of crimes on campus.
"While Virginia Tech's violations warrant a fine far in excess of what is currently permissible under the statute, the Department's fine authority is limited," wrote Mary Gust, director of a department panel that dictated what punishment the school would receive for the violation.
The university avoided the potentially devastating punishment of losing some or all of its $98 million in federal student aid. While that's possible for a Clery Act violation, the department has never taken that step and a department official said it was never considered for Virginia Tech.
University officials have always maintained their innocence and said they would appeal the fine, even though it's a relatively small sum for a school of more than 30,000 full-time students and an annual budget of $1.1 billion. The amount would cover tuition and fees for one Virginia undergraduate student for four years, or two years for an out-of-state undergrad.
"I don't think any amount of money would ever be enough, because it's not about that," said S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security On Campus, a nonprofit organization that monitors the Clery Act. "It's about accountability, and it's about making sure students at Virginia Tech and across the country are kept are safe."
Only about 40 schools have come under review for Clery Act violations in the 20 years the law has been in place. The largest fine to be levied was $350,000 against Eastern Michigan University for failing to report the rape and murder of a student in a dormitory in 2006.
Carter said it's "a shame" the department had only really began fining schools for noncompliance in 2005.
"If the Department of Education had sent a stronger message about having to follow the law and that something faster would be expected sooner, the shootings at Virginia Tech may have never happened," Carter said.
The Clery Act requires colleges and universities that get federal student financial aid to report crimes and security policies and provide warning of campus threats. It is named after Jeanne Ann Clery, a 19-year-old university freshman who was raped and murdered in her dormitory in 1986. Her parents later learned that dozens of violent crimes had been committed on the campus in the three years before her death.
The education department in its final report in December said Virginia Tech failed to issue a timely warning to the Blacksburg campus after Cho shot and killed two students in a dormitory early that morning. The university sent out an email to the campus more than two hours later, about the time Cho was chaining shut the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more students and faculty and himself.
That email was too vague, the department said, because it referred only to a "shooting incident" but did not mention anyone had died. By the time a second, more explicit warning was sent, Cho was near the end of his shooting spree.
"Had an appropriate timely warning been sent earlier to the campus community, more individuals could have acted on the information and made decisions about their own safety," the department said in its letter.
A state commission that investigated 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 sued and are seeking $10 million in damages from university officials. That case is set for trial this fall.
Virginia Tech argues that, relying on campus police, it first thought the shootings were domestic and that a suspect had been identified so there was no threat to campus. The university argued that the Department of Education didn't define "timely" until 2009, when it added regulations because of the Virginia Tech shootings.
University spokesman Larry Hincker outlined six other serious cases at other college campuses before and after the Virginia Tech shootings in which notifications were not given for hours, or in some instances the next day, and the schools were not punished.
"The only reason we want to appeal this is that it gives us the process to explain how a notice given on one campus can be OK if it's this long, and a notice given on another campus is not OK if it's this short a time period," he said. "As best we can tell, it's whatever DOE decides after the fact."
The education department rebuffed that argument, saying officials should have treated it as a threat because the shooter was on the loose.
If the school loses the appeal, it could fight the fine in court. The money goes back to the Department of Education.
Several victims' family members maligned Virginia Tech for saying it would appeal.
"This is in black and white," said Suzanne Grimes, whose son Kevin Sterne was injured in the shootings. "They're going to spend more money appealing it than just paying the fine, because they do not want to admit they did anything wrong."
Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was shot but survived, said she was not surprised by the maximum fine.
"I feel like it's par for the course, if you will, for what they are allowed to do," she said. "I think it is a woefully, woefully, woefully sad amount of money for the staggering loss of life."
Carter, the campus safety advocate, said he hopes the fine -- no matter how small -- will get the attention of other campus officials.
"A strong message has been sent that Clery compliance is important and that institutions have to have good policies, publicize those policies and follow those polices," Carter said. "That's what Virginia Tech didn't do."
Associated Press Writer Larry O'Dell contributed to this report.
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