$55K fine against Va. Tech overturned; timing of warning during rampage was questioned

An administrative judge at the U.S. Department of Education has overturned a $55,000 fine the department imposed against Virginia Tech in connection with a 2007 shooting rampage that left 33 dead and raised questions about whether the university had adequately warned students once the violence erupted.

In a decision issued late Thursday, Judge Ernest C. Canellos ruled that Virginia Tech did issue a timely warning to the Blacksburg campus community by sending out an e-mail two hours after the first two victims were shot in a dormitory. The shooter, student Seung Hui Cho, traveled farther on the campus to Norris Hall, where he killed an additional 30 people before committing suicide.

“This was not an unreasonable amount of time in which to issue a warning,” Canellos wrote. “If the later shootings at Norris Hall had not occurred, it is doubtful that the timing of the e-mail would have been perceived as too late.”

Lawrence Hincker, associate vice president for university relations, said in a statement that Virginia Tech was satisfied with the ruling but that “there is no glee. A horrendous event happened on this campus almost five years ago. Profound sadness remains. We continue to grieve for the families of victims killed or injured by a deranged young man.”

Officials at the U.S. Department of Education had levied the fine because they said that the warning e-mail was sent too late after the first deaths, that it did not provide enough specific information and that Virginia Tech had violated the Clery Act, a federal law that requires schools receiving federal aid to issue timely warnings of campus threats.

Canellos’s decision can be set aside by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Duncan has not decided whether to intervene, according to his spokesman, Justin Hamilton.

“We are aware of the ruling, and the Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid is considering its options,” Hamilton said in a statement. “At the end of the day, we all agree that the most important thing we can do as a country is to put safeguards and protections in place that will help prevent a tragedy like this from occurring again.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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