Virginia Tech disputes federal report saying university violated law in shootings
Virginia Tech releases draft of latest report assessing April 16
BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech officials are disputing a U.S. Department of Education draft report asserting that in waiting two hours to notify the campus community of two shootings in West Ambler Johnston Hall on April 16, 2007, the university violated the federal Clery Act.
The university released this afternoon its official 72-page response, as well as the 11-page original DOE report on the alleged violations.
Both the university and the DOE declined in February to release the draft report. DOE cited a federal Freedom of Information Act provision that exempts draft reports from disclosure. Tech legal counsel deemed the draft report an executive "working paper" under state sunshine laws because, officials said, it was addressed to President Charles Steger and meant for his "deliberative use." Under Virginia law, executive working papers can in some instances be withheld.
With the submission of the university’s official response to DOE in April, however, Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said the working paper exemption no longer applied to either document, and he released them to the public today.
According to the DOE’s draft report, "Virginia Tech failed to issue adequate warnings in a timely manner in response to the tragic events of April 16, 2007" under the federal Clery Act. When warnings were issued, they "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," the report says.
Furthermore, the university "did not follow its own policy for the issuance of timely warnings as published in its annual campus security reports," the report says.
Universities that participate in federal student aid programs are subject to the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, which spells out criminal notification requirements and other rules. It is enforced by the DOE, and violations can result in fines.
More than two hours after the 7:15 a.m. shooting of two students in West Ambler Johnston, troubled Tech student Seung-Hui Cho chained shut the doors of Norris Hall and opened fire in hallways and classrooms there. In all, Cho killed 32 students and faculty and injured dozens more before shooting himself.
But Tech officials said today that the DOE report is based on flawed sources, including an unofficial, student-run archive of April 16-related documents and an early version of a state investigative panel report that was revised and corrected twice by order of Gov. Tim Kaine.
In its written response, Tech argues that in 2007 accepted practice among universities subject to the Clery Act was to issue timely warnings up to 48 hours after an incident.
Officials further argue that the university was given little input into the DOE’s initial investigation, and that some of its conclusions are based on regulations and guidelines that did not exist at the time of the shootings.
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," university Director of Emergency Management Mike Mulhare wrote in a statement.
Mulhare, who was hired in 2008, compiled the university’s response.
As part of its response, Tech also submitted a consultant’s report. That report, compiled by Delores Stafford of Deleware-based D. Stafford Associates found that "the fact that the administration distributed a timely warning notice in less than two hours would have been sufficient and consistent with what most campuses were doing at that time.
"It is my professional opinion that Virginia Tech has not violated the timely warning requirement and cannot be held accountable for meeting standards that didn’t exist prior to the tragic events that occurred on that day," Stafford wrote.
Stafford, whom Tech paid $9,000 for her services, is a former George Washington University police chief and acknowledged expert in the Clery Act. She has testified before congress and served on committees that have shaped the evolution of that act.
The DOE draft report released today is not a final determination. A final determination letter will be released after the agency reviews Tech’s response.
Other regulatory agencies follow similar back-and-forth review processes in assessing compliance with state and federal rules. A timeline for a final determination has not been made public.