Va. Tech too slow to sound alert in 2007 shooting spree, report says

By Nick Anderson
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Virginia Tech failed to comply with a federal law that requires timely warning of safety threats to the campus community after Seung Hui Cho's deadly shooting spree began in April 2007, according to a preliminary review by the U.S. Education Department released Tuesday.

Virginia Tech vigorously disputed that conclusion as it released the preliminary review and a long, point-by-point response.

The review appeared to add no new details to the chronology of events April 16, 2007, established by law enforcement investigators after Cho killed 32 people in a dormitory and classroom building and wounded others before taking his own life. But it reopened painful questions for the university, victims and their families about whether the tragedy could have been averted if the campus had become aware of the gunman soon after he started shooting.

The federal officials who reviewed the record wrote that under a statute known as the Clery Act, the university should have provided the campus with more rapid information after two students were found shot to death that morning in the West Ambler Johnston dormitory. They focused on the well-known delay of nearly two hours between the police discovery of those bodies about 7:30 a.m. and the issuance of an e-mail threat advisory at 9:26 a.m. Soon afterward, Cho started shooting in Norris Hall.

"Virginia Tech failed to issue adequate warnings in a timely manner in response to the tragic events of April 16, 2007," federal officials wrote. "There are two aspects to this violation. First, the warnings that were issued by the university were not prepared or disseminated in a manner to give clear and timely notice of the threat to the health and safety of campus community members. Secondly, Virginia Tech did not follow its own policy for the issuance of timely warnings as published in its annual campus security reports."

Nancy Paula Gifford, an area case director for the Education Department, based in Philadelphia, sent the 11-page report to the university in January.

The university sent a 73-page objection to the preliminary findings, saying the federal review contained errors of fact and legal interpretation.

"Virginia Tech professionals acted appropriately in their response to the tragic events . . . based on the best information then available to them," said Michael Mulhare, the university's director of emergency management. He said federal guidance and industry practice indicated that timely campus threat alerts could be issued after several hours or even days. "The university actions were well within these guidelines and practices," he wrote.

But Mulhare stressed that the university has learned from the tragedy. "Our campus and countless others are safer because of what we've learned and the actions we've taken," he wrote.

Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton said: "This is a preliminary finding. After we have reviewed Virginia Tech's feedback on our report, we'll issue a final determination in coming weeks."

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