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Dept. of Education finds Virginia Tech broke the law

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Dec. 9, the U.S. Department of Education issued a report stating that Virginia Tech broke the law when it waited two hours to warn the campus that a gunman was on the loose, according to an article by the Associated Press.

The agency rejected the university's defense and confirmed that the school violated the Clery Act, which requires students and employees be notified of on-campus threats.

"Virginia Tech's failure to issue timely warnings about the serious and ongoing threat 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," the report stated.

Now it's possible that the university could lose some or all of the $98 million in student financial aid it receives from the federal government, and could be fined up to $55,000 for the violations. It's unknown when any of these sanctions will occur.

A considerable part of the university's stance was around the definition of a "timely" warning. The university argued there was no definition of "timely" until two years after the shooting, when the DOE required schools to immediately notify people on campus upon confirmation of a dangerous situation or an immediate threat, according to the article.

"Today's ruling could add even more confusion as to what constitutes a 'timely warning' at a time when unambiguous guidance is needed," said Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker. "It appears that timely warning is whatever the Department of Education decides after the fact."

Here are some of the other findings from the report:
—The university's e-mail stated only that "a shooting incident occurred" and that the community should be cautious. The report said that could have led recipients to think the shooting was accidental and that it failed to give students and employees the "information they needed for their own protection."

—The warning would have reached more students and employees and "may have saved lives" if it had been sent before the 9:05 a.m. classes began.

—That Tech's warning policy — which is required under the Clery Act — was vague and did not provide the campus with the types of events that would warrant a warning, who would deliver it or how it would be transmitted.

—The university's process for issuing a warning was complicated and not well understood even by senior officials.