Va. Tech mulls appeal as it marks grim anniversary

Posted April 15, 2011, at 8:58 p.m.

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Four years after a troubled student gunned down 32 in a campus rampage, Virginia Tech officials remain adamant that they did nothing wrong by waiting two hours to warn the campus that a gunman was on the loose.

On Saturday, the school will mourn the victims of the April 16, 2007 mass shooting — the worst in modern U.S. history — with a 3.2-mile Run for Remembrance and a candlelight vigil. Meanwhile, school officials are strongly leaning toward appealing a $55,000 fine for violating federal law with its response the day of the shootings. They have until April 29 to decide.

Many victims’ families say the school can’t simultaneously mourn the tragedy and deny its mistakes.

“Truth, accountability, apology, forgiveness — you have to get through the first three to get to the fourth,” said Joseph Samaha, whose daughter Reema was killed. “Somebody needs to say “I made a mistake.’”

Virginia Tech says it acted reasonably based on standards in place at the time and doesn’t deserve the fine that the U.S. Department of Education has imposed. President Charles Steger argues that federal bureaucrats with the benefit of hindsight are holding the university to stricter standards.

“We were there, and given the information we had and the circumstances we faced, I believe we acted appropriately,” Steger told The Associated Press. “Now does that mean we don’t have great sadness in our heart or compassion for those families? Certainly not.”

Steger said the school’s likely appeal is an attempt to make the government explain its rationale — not to escape accountability. If the university loses the administrative appeal, it could take the matter to federal court.

Campus safety experts say the sanctions and Tech’s response provide a test case for how universities should respond in the future.

“This is literally higher education in the world on trial,” said Peter Lake, a Stetson College of Law professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy. “They didn’t ask for this, but they’ve been nominated by fate to play this important role.”

The shootings also represent the first substantive review of the Clery Act’s timely warning requirement, said S. Daniel Carter, whose organization Security On Campus filed the complaint that prompted the government to examine Virginia Tech’s response.

The 20-year-old law governs campus security at colleges and universities that receive federal aid. It was named after Jeanne Ann Clery, a 19-year-old university freshman who was raped and murdered in her dorm room in 1986.

Before the shootings, the law called for schools to issue a timely warning when they had information of an ongoing threat. A decade ago, posting a notice in a building’s lobby was considered adequate. Now schools are expected to instantly send emails and text warnings under a 2008 change in the law that requires “immediate” notification.

 

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