published Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Virginia Tech mulls appeal as it marks grim anniversary

By LARRY O’DELL and DENA POTTER

Associated Press

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Four years after a troubled student gunned down 32 in a campus rampage, Virginia Tech officials remain adamant that they did nothing wrong by waiting two hours to warn the campus that a gunman was on the loose.

On Saturday, the school will mourn the victims of the April 16, 2007 mass shooting — the worst in modern U.S. history — with a 3.2-mile Run for Remembrance and a candlelight vigil. Meanwhile, school officials are strongly leaning toward appealing a $55,000 fine for violating federal law with its response the day of the shootings. They have until April 29 to decide.

Many victims’ families say the school can’t simultaneously mourn the tragedy and deny its mistakes.

“Truth, accountability, apology, forgiveness — you have to get through the first three to get to the fourth,” said Joseph Samaha, whose daughter Reema was killed. “Somebody needs to say ”I made a mistake.’“

Virginia Tech says it acted reasonably based on standards in place at the time and doesn’t deserve the fine that the U.S. Department of Education has imposed. President Charles Steger argues that federal bureaucrats with the benefit of hindsight are holding the university to stricter standards.

“We were there, and given the information we had and the circumstances we faced, I believe we acted appropriately,” Steger told The Associated Press. “Now does that mean we don’t have great sadness in our heart or compassion for those families? Certainly not.”

Steger said the school’s likely appeal is an attempt to make the government explain its rationale — not to escape accountability. If the university loses the administrative appeal, it could take the matter to federal court.

Campus safety experts say the sanctions and Tech’s response provide a test case for how universities should respond in the future.

“This is literally higher education in the world on trial,” said Peter Lake, a Stetson College of Law professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy. “They didn’t ask for this, but they’ve been nominated by fate to play this important role.”

The shootings also represent the first substantive review of the Clery Act’s timely warning requirement, said S. Daniel Carter, whose organization Security On Campus filed the complaint that prompted the government to examine Virginia Tech’s response.

The 20-year-old law governs campus security at colleges and universities that receive federal aid. It was named after Jeanne Ann Clery, a 19-year-old university freshman who was raped and murdered in her dorm room in 1986.

Before the shootings, the law called for schools to issue a timely warning when they had information of an ongoing threat. A decade ago, posting a notice in a building’s lobby was considered adequate. Now schools are expected to instantly send emails and text warnings under a 2008 change in the law that requires “immediate” notification.

Since the shootings, Carter said universities are quicker to warn students and faculty of threats.

“There was a fundamental change in the culture, and it gets a lot more resources, a lot more attention and a lot more respect,” Carter said of emergency preparedness on college campuses. “I think the Clery Act was already moving in that direction, just very slowly. This was like an overnight change.”

Dolores Stafford, a campus security consultant hired by Virginia Tech, says the school’s response was quick for the time. A survey she conducted of campus security officers after the shooting found that more than a third believed they had 24 to 48 hours to send out a notice. About one in four thought a notification should be sent within an hour.

Stafford said she doubts a quicker warning would have stopped the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, who gunned down two people in a dormitory before walking across campus to kill 30 more in a classroom building. He killed himself as police closed in.

“I believe regardless of what VT did that day or what individuals on the campus may have done or not done that day, he was going to shoot as many people as he could,” said Stafford, whose company was paid $9,038 by Tech to evaluate the university’s actions in the context of the Clery Act.

The Department of Education has said it would have liked to fine Virginia Tech more than the maximum $27,500 for each of two violations. It hasn’t increased its fines to adjust for inflation since 1990.

Carter said it’s not about the fine: “It’s about accountability.”

He adds that Tech is likely to spend more than $55,000 on its appeal. The tab so far is unclear because Tech’s in-house lawyers and the state attorney general’s office aren’t required to say how much time they spend on individual cases.

Tech has already reached an $11 million settlement with most of the victims’ families, and is currently defending itself in a civil lawsuit filed by two other families.

To Steger, an appeal of the fines might help resolve several unanswered questions.

“The questions we have are, one, why did it take four years to produce the report?” Steger said. ”Secondly, during those four years no one from the Department of Education ever spoke to anyone at Virginia Tech and they certainly did not speak to me.“

Department of Education spokeswoman Sara Gast said Tech had plenty of opportunity to weigh in, but most of the process was done in writing.

“They were absolutely involved,” she said.

Steger said the nature of the on-paper exchanges made it unclear how federal education officials reached their conclusions, and attempts to get that information have been fruitless.

“We believe that not only for the interests of Virginia Tech but the interests of all universities in Virginia and higher education across the United States, this lack of transparency and lack of due process is not healthy for higher education,” Steger said. “And to sit back and pretend like it’s OK is really not the right thing to do.”

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Dena Potter reported from Hampton, Va.

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