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Fine overturned against Virginia Tech for mass-shooting warning

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times –

WASHINGTON — Virginia Tech did not violate federal law in its email response time that notified students of a campus rampage that left 33 people dead, the worst mass shooting by a gunman in U.S. history, a judge ruled Friday.

The Department of Education had fined the university $55,000 for waiting more than two hours after the first round of gunfire to send out an email warning students, teachers and others to take cover.

But the department’s chief administrative judge, Ernest C. Canellos, found that the university did not violate a law requiring timely warnings of safety threats and overturned the fine.

School officials said they had believed the approximately 7:15 a.m. shooting of two students at a dorm was a domestic incident. An email went out at 9:26 a.m. alerting the campus community of the shooting and urging people to use caution and contact police if they saw anything suspicious.

Between 9:40 and 9:51 a.m., student Seung-Hui Cho killed 30 people and himself inside a classroom building. A second email went out at 9:50 a.m. warning people to stay put because a gunman was “loose on campus.”

Canellos said the two hours it took the university to issue its warning “was not an unreasonable amount of time.”

“Yes, the warning could have gone out sooner, and in hindsight, it is beyond regretful that it did not,” he wrote. “If the later shootings at Norris Hall had not occurred, it is doubtful that the timing of the email would have been perceived as too late.”

“While incredibly tragic, the fact that it did not come soon enough to possibly protect some individuals from losing their lives does not mean that Virginia Tech’s email was not sent in a reasonable amount of time so as to satisfy the timeliness requirement,” he wrote.

Virginia Tech’s associate vice president for university relations Lawrence Hincker said in a statement that while “satisfied” with the ruling, “there is no glee.”

“A horrendous event happened on this campus almost five years ago,” he said. “Profound sadness remains. We continue to grieve for the families of victims killed or injured by a deranged young man.”

Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton said that officials in the department’s Office of Federal Student Aid are considering their options. They can appeal the decision to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“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,” Hamilton said. “We will continue to work with Virginia Tech and schools across the country to make sure we’re collectively doing everything possible to keep students safe and learning.”

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, whose office represented the university, added: “For us, this appeal was not about the fines as much as it was about the arbitrary way the U.S. Department of Education tried to apply the law against a school that responded reasonably while an unforeseen and unprecedented crime was occurring on campus.”

Cuccinelli earlier had assailed the department for “Monday-morning quarterbacking at its very worst.”

“Because of what happened here, we know that higher education changed on April 16, 2007,” Hincker said. “New laws, protocols, practices, policies and technologies grew from our tragedy.”

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