WASHINGTON -- Education Secretary Arne Duncan has reinstated a $27,500 fine against Virginia Tech, finding that the university failed to provide a timely warning to the campus community in the 2007 shooting rampage that left 33 people dead.
Duncan reversed a ruling by the department’s chief administrative judge, who earlier this year overturned the fine after concluding that the university did not violate a federal law requiring timely warnings of safety threats.
A federal court appeal is a "strong possibility,’’ a university spokesman said.
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.
Duncan said that even if campus police had believed the shooting were domestic, the university took a series of actions that demonstrated "concerns that the crime might represent a continuing threat to the campus,’’ including locking down its Center for Professional and Continuing Education at 8 a.m., canceling bank deposits at 8:25 a.m. and locking down its Veterinary College shortly after 9 a.m.
"Although the police department hypothesized that the crime was 'domestic in nature,’ the record is clear that the respondent had not located the suspect, had not found the weapon, and was confronted with the distinct possibility that the gunman was armed and still at large,’’ Duncan wrote in his decision.
"Faced with this possibility, the respondent should have resolved any doubts it had regarding the timing of the warning by issuing the warning before 9:26 a.m.’’
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.’’
Duncan reinstated half of the $55,000 fine originally imposed by his department. He said the university should pay the maximum $27,500 fine for failing to provide a timely warning. He directed an administrative law judge to determine the fine for the university’s "inconsistent’’ warning policies.
Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations, said: "Once again, the higher education community has been put on notice that timeliness is situational and will be determined by department officials after the fact.
"The federal government has never defined a timely warning and continues to hold universities accountable even when a university’s actions are well within the department’s own guidelines," he added.
A spokesman for Virginia Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli said the office was reviewing the ruling, as well as whether or not it would appeal, with Virginia Tech officials.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), sponsor of legislation to increase penalties against colleges and universities that fail to provide timely warnings of campus emergencies, said in a statement that Duncan’s decision showed that "the penalties for putting lives in danger absolutely must be increased to match the seriousness in which we take the safety of our children.’’