In the wake of two shooting deaths that would prove the prelude to a campus massacre later that morning on April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech officials violated federal regulations by failing to quickly inform the campus community of a gunman on the loose, according to a preliminary Department of Education finding made public Tuesday.
“Virginia Tech’s failure to issue timely warnings of the serious and on-going threat on April 16, 2007, 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,” a report from the department states.
The department’s findings are being vigorously disputed by Virginia Tech officials, who say they’re being held to federal standards that were adopted only in the wake of the tragedy on their campus. At the time of a killing spree that left 32 people and the student shooter dead, federal rules required colleges receiving Title IV funding to issue “timely warnings” on crimes that could be a threat to other students and employees, but purposely declined to define “timely.” It was only after the tragedy that Congress, in renewing the Higher Education Act in 2008, stated that an immediate threat should trigger emergency notifications without delay.
“Virginia Tech professionals acted appropriately in their response to the tragic events of April 16, 2007, based on the best information then available to them, and we respectfully disagree with the preliminary conclusions of the Department of Education’s program Review Report,” the university’s response says.
A mass e-mail alerting the campus about the dormitory shootings was sent at 9:26 a.m., nearly two hours after campus security and university officials learned of the first two killings. Seung-Hui Cho’s massacre in Norris Hall began at 9:40 a.m.
The department’s report was sent to Virginia Tech on Jan. 21, but the report and Virginia Tech’s response came to light only on Tuesday. The department had declined to release its preliminary findings in response to open records requests, and Virginia Tech did so only after its response was completed.
If the department maintains its finding that Virginia Tech violated federal laws, the university could be fined. The largest fine paid to date for such violations was at Eastern Michigan University, which in 2008 paid $350,000 to the department for failing to inform the campus of a student murder.
The department’s review of Virginia Tech was triggered by a complaint from Security on Campus, a nonprofit group that suggested that the university’s response to the shootings violated the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The Clery Act, which requires colleges to issue timely warnings and other reports, is named for Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student who was raped and murdered in 1986. Her family formed Security on Campus after her death.
S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security on Campus, said the Education Department’s report intentionally goes to great lengths to illustrate what exactly Virginia Tech officials knew -- and when they knew it. The extensive deliberations among Virginia Tech officials prior to issuing a warning is an indication that they knew an action was warranted but were scrambling with no real road map to guide them, he said.
“If they had had an adequate process in place up front, they would never have been put in that position,” Carter said. “Some of the individuals, yes, I can feel sympathy for, but not the institution.”
As for the contention that the department applied an updated standard to evaluate Virginia Tech’s response, Carter said that’s just not the case. A 2005 Handbook for Campus Crime Reporting contained guidelines that warranted a more prompt response, he said.
“The warning should be issued as soon as the pertinent information is available because the intent of a timely warning is to alert the campus community of continuing threats especially concerning safety, thereby enabling community members to protect themselves,” the handbook reads.
But Virginia Tech has argued that the pair of killings in West Ambler Johnston dormitory that preceded the mass shootings later that morning at Norris Hall did not suggest further danger to the rest of the campus. Instead, “all evidence indicated that a crime of targeted violence had occurred and was not an ongoing threat,” university officials wrote. Police had suspected the shooting was the work of one of the victims' boyfriends. Absent a perceived ongoing threat, issuing a “timely” warning wasn’t warranted, and even so the university’s response was “timely” under commonly accepted norms in higher education, officials said.
The Department of Education, however, has disputed the notion that the dormitory shootings should not have been viewed as an ongoing threat. Citing official statements from the chief of the Virginia Tech Police Department, the department notes that "a weapon was not found at the scene of the murders and that there were bloody footprints leading away from the bodies.”
“These facts strongly indicated that the shooter was still at large, and therefore, posed an ongoing threat to the health and safety of Virginia Tech’s students and employees and other members of the campus community,” the department’s report said.
Beyond suggesting that a warning should have been issued earlier, the department said that the university did not follow its own policies for issuing such warnings. Virginia Tech’s policy states that campus police will be notified and “prepare a release” for distribution across campus regarding crimes that represent a “potentially dangerous situation.”
In practice, however, Virginia Tech’s police chief went through a series of bureaucratic channels before a warning was issued, the report found. A consultation with an administrative committee occurred first, and the technological means for sending out such warnings were “under the exclusive control” of Virginia Tech’s associate vice president for university relations and the director of news and information, the report found.
The university disputes the assertion that police didn’t have the authority to issue warnings.
Throughout its response, Virginia Tech maintained that the department was falling victim to “hindsight bias.”
“While understandable human reaction, the influences of hindsight bias must not replace or supplant an objective and reasonable review of the facts as they were known at the time of the [dormitory] shootings,” the response states. “Unfortunately, these biases tend to result in criticism of reasonable decisions based on the outcome and not the decision process.”
Moreover, Virginia Tech officials noted that the tragedy the campus endured has created an entirely elevated set of expectations for campus security.
“Virginia Tech has changed,” the report states. “Higher education has changed.… Just about every campus in the nation [now] maintains some form of emergency communication capability. It is fair to say that an entire industry of emergency notification sprang from our anguish.”
Compared to a number of other campus homicides, Virginia Tech argues in its report, the university provided notification more quickly than other institutions did in similar cases:
University of Portland, May 2001: Student killed in dorm during summer session, e-mail sent out that evening approximately eight hours after the incident.
Tennessee State University, 2005: Shooting occurred in evening, mass e-mail sent to campus community the following morning.
University of Missouri-Columbia, January 2005: Stabbing occurred in parking garage, “Clery Release” provided next day, approximately 23 hours later.
University of South Florida, February 2006: Graduate student shot at night, no community crime alert issued.
Virginia Wesleyan College, October 2006: Security officer killed in the evening, administration sent e-mail next morning to college community.
Norfolk State University, March 2007: Student stabbed, campus community first learns about the incident through the media, campus-wide notification not issued because it was considered an isolated event.
University of Arizona, September 2007: Student stabbed in resident hall, information posted on police department Web site at 8:59 a.m., incident discovered at 6:30 a.m.
Source: Virginia Tech