University 'broke law' over late massacre warning

The US government has said Virginia Tech university broke the law by waiting two hours to tell the campus that a gunman was loose at the outset of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

The US government has said Virginia Tech university broke the law by waiting two hours to tell the campus that a gunman was loose at the outset of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

In a report, the Department of Education rejected Virginia Tech’s argument that its response to the 2007 shooting rampage met standards in place at the time.

“Virginia Tech’s failure to issue timely warnings about the serious and ongoing threat deprived its students and employees of vital, time-sensitive information and denied them the opportunity to take adequate steps to provide for their own safety,” the report stated.

The department found in January that the university violated the Clery Act, which requires notification of on-campus threats to students and employees.

The report found the school broke the law by failing to issue a timely warning to the Blacksburg campus after student Seung-Hui Cho shot dead two students in a dormitory early on April 16, 2007.

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 staff, then himself.

The report also determined that the school failed to follow its own procedures for providing such notification.

Virginia Tech could be fined £17,400 for each violation, for a total of £34,800. The school could also lose some or all its £62 million in government student financial aid, though such an outcome is considered unlikely.

A decision will be made by a Department of Education panel.

Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said the school would probably appeal if it was sanctioned.

A state commission that investigated the shootings also found that the university erred by failing to notify the campus sooner.

The state reached an £6.9 million settlement with many of the victims’ families. Two families have sued and are seeking £6.3 million in damages from university officials. A judge recently ruled those lawsuits could move forward.

One victim’s mother said she was glad the university was finally facing punishment for its actions, but she took more satisfaction from the inclusion in the report of actions that Virginia Tech officials took to protect themselves that morning.

Victims’ families had long wanted those details included in the report of the state commission.

“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.”

Ms Grimes and other victims’ families fought for the state report to include documentation that some Virginia Tech staffers informed family members and others about the shootings long before the notice went out to the entire campus.

The university says that one official advised her son to go to class anyway, while another only called to arrange for a babysitter.

But the government report notes a few actions by the university after word of the shootings spread but before the email was sent to campus: a continuing education centre was locked down; an official directed that the doors to his office be locked; the university’s veterinary college was locked down; and campus rubbish collection was suspended.

“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 said

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.

But the education department rebuffed that argument, saying officials should have treated it as a threat because the gunman was on the loose.

The university argues that the Department of Education did not define “timely” until 2009, when it added regulations to require immediate notification upon confirmation of a dangerous situation or an 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,” said Mr Hincker.

“Anything else loses sight of the unthinkable and unprecedented nature of what occurred,” he said.

University president Charles Steger was travelling and unavailable for comment, Mr Hincker said.

The report said that since 2005, the Department of Education had stated that the determination of whether a warning was timely was 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.

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