Feds: Virginia Tech Violated Federal Law for Failing to Issue Timely Warning

VIDEO: Virginia Tech MassacrePlayABC News
WATCH 4/16/07: Virginia Tech Massacre

The U.S. Department of Education today issued a report that found the administration of Virginia Tech University in violation of federal law for its handling of the mass shootings on its campus in 2007. The department ruled that Tech had failed in its legal obligation to issue "timely warning" to the campus community after two students were shot in a dormitory in the early morning hours of April 16th.

More than two hours later Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old student with a history of mental health problems, chained the doors of a classroom building and went on a shooting rampage, killing 30 other students and faculty before taking his own life.

In making its final determination, the Education wrote that "Virginia Tech failed to issue adequate warnings in a timely manner in response to the murders on campus." When Tech did eventually issue a warning two hours after the dorm shooting, the report says the alert "was not prepared or disseminated in a manner to give clear and timely notice of the ongoing threat to students and employees."

When Michael Pohle received a copy of the report this morning, he was overcome with emotion. His 22-year-old son, Michael Jr., died of multiple gunshot wounds while sitting in a German class at Tech's Norris Hall. "I went outside, spent some time alone, cried, shared a couple of words with Mike and told him that it's not over yet," Pohle told ABC news. "We're going to keep pushing."

Virginia Tech is charged with violating the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act which requires colleges and universities to publicly disclose information about crime on and around their campuses. The complaint against the University was lodged three years ago by the advocacy group Security on Campus, which was formed by the parents of Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in 1986, and for whom the law is named. Under the law, the Department of Education has the authority to investigate violations and enforce penalties, which can include fines and, in extreme cases, suspension of federal financial aid.

Virginia Tech Explanation Rejected

"We're glad that there was a thorough process that carefully analyzed all the facts and found as we have contended since day one that there were Clery Act violations with the failure to adequately and timely warn the campus community of Va Tech," said S. Daniel Carter of Security on Campus today.

The Department of Education's investigation is the first by an agency outside the state of Virginia to examine the actions taken by Tech officials, as the worst school shooting in U.S. history unfolded on its Blacksburg campus. A state panel of outside experts appointed by then-Governor Tim Kaine) to review the shooting, determined in August 2007 that the university should have issued more explicit warnings sooner. But that panel had only an advisory role.

"My hope is that Virginia Tech and all universities will learn from this - that student and staff and faculty safety must be paramount," said Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was severely wounded in the shooting rampage.

In a statement issued this afternoon, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "The loss of that day can never be undone. While Virginia Tech failed to adequately warn students that day, we recognize that the University has put far-reaching changes in place since that time to help improve campus safety and better protect its students and community."

The Department of Education had informed Virginia Tech in January of its preliminary findings and offered the University a chance to respond to the allegations. In May, the University released the preliminary report along with its 73-page response disputing the federal agency's assertions.

Virginia Tech's objections center on arguments that the university's actions were being unfairly judged in hindsight, and that the language of the Clery Act's "timely warning" provisions were too vague to be enforceable.

"Virginia Tech officials acted appropriately in their response to the tragic events of April 16, based on the best information then available to them," wrote Tech's Emergency Management Director, Michael Mulhare. The final report issued today, roundly rejects the bulk of the university's argument.

Timeline Raised Questions About Tech Actions

Iin a statement issued today, Virginia Tech largely repeated those objections and vowed to exercise all available appeals. "[B]oth the law and purposeful reasoned analysis require that the actions of that day be evaluated according to the information that was available to the university and its professionals at that time," said the statement from associate vice president Larry Hincker. "Anything else loses sight of the unthinkable and unprecedented nature of what occurred."

"I would not expect them to say anything else, because they will never admit that they did anything wrong," says Suzanne Grimes, whose son Kevin Sterne was wounded by Cho, and still has a 9mm bullet lodged in his leg. "This (report) is like an early Christmas present. It's just a long-awaited voice for the truth to be out there, because now it's there in black and white."

In the immediate aftermath of Cho's massacre and continuing up to today, university officials have defended the delay in warning the campus because of their initial belief that the first shooting at the dorm, which killed 19-year-old Emily Hilscher and 22-year-old resident assistant Ryan Clark, was an isolated incident, likely domestic in nature.

Virginia Tech Police investigators initially trained their sights on a "person of interest," later identified as Hilscher's boyfriend, a student at nearby Radford University who had dropped Hilscher off at the dorm earlier that morning.

Tech's Actions Still Being Scrutinized

In public statements on the day of the shooting, Tech administrators said that shortly after the first shootings at 7:15 a.m., the police had developed leads that indicated the "person of interest" had likely left the campus.

More than two hours passed before the University Policy Group, which had assembled to consider the university's response, issued its first e-mail alert to the campus, at 9:26 a.m., which reported a "shooting incident" at the dormitory, but made no mention of the homicide or the possibility that a gunman could still be loose on the campus. The alert vaguely urged the campus community "to be cautious."

The next alert, which was sent at 9:50 a.m., a few minutes after Cho had begun his bloody rampage at Norris Hall, reported that a "gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows."

But subsequent investigations by family members, ABC News, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other news organizations, have revealed that Tech's initial statements about the "person of interest" were significantly at odds with the timeline of events that has since come to light.

In fact, for at least an hour after the authorities arrived at the dormitory shooting scene, most of what officials knew could be boiled down to this: An unknown assailant had shot two students, no gun had been recovered, and bloody footprints were discovered leading to a stairwell exit of the dorm.

It also emerged that the witness who provided the information about the boyfriend didn't even arrive at the dorm until 45 minutes after the university had first claimed they learned of him.

"There is really only one thing that matters," Carter of Public Policy for Security on Campus. "By approximately 7:30 a.m., officials knew that they had two students who had been shot with an unknown suspect at large. Nothing else mattered in terms of what the law required them to do."

The Department of Education has referred its findings to its enforcement arm for consideration of the penalties, which will be determined at a later date. The University cannot appeal the findings, but may appeal the penalties once they are issued.