RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia Tech will appeal $55,000 in federal fines levied against the school for failing to quickly alert the campus during the 2007 mass shooting that killed 32 students and faculty members, the state announced Wednesday.
State Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli made the announcement two days before the deadline to file an administrative appeal of the finding that the school violated federal law. He called the findings by the U.S. Department of Education "absolutely appalling," adding that an appeal was necessary to ensure Virginia Tech was treated fairly.
The federal agency imposed the fine in March after finding that Tech had violated campus safety law by waiting too long to notify the campus of a potential threat after two students were shot to death in a dormitory on April 16, 2007. An email alert went out more than two hours later that day, about the time student Seung-Hui Cho was chaining shut the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more students and faculty and himself. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
The department said Virginia Tech deserved a larger fine, but the $55,000 was the maximum allowed by law for two violations of the federal Clery Act, which requires campus notification of potential threats to students and employees.
Tech was specifically charged with failure to issue a timely warning and failure to follow its own procedures for providing notification. The law is named after Jeanne Ann Clery, a 19-year-old college student who was raped and murdered in her dormitory in 1986.
Tech officials have denied wrongdoing and said federal bureaucrats with the benefit of hindsight are holding them to stricter standards than those in place on the day of the killings. Cuccinelli agreed, calling the department's actions "Monday morning quarterbacking at its very worst."
University President Charles Steger told The Associated Press earlier this month that an appeal was crucial to getting a better explanation from the department about the reasons for its sanctions.
Cuccinelli, whose office has consulted with Virginia Tech officials on the issue over the past month, said the school has been denied due process because it has been unable to obtain answers to its questions.
"These federal bureaucrats have no problem harshly judging the decisions others had to make in a two-hour period of unimaginable crisis and stress," he said. "Yet in the comfort of their Washington offices, they take four years to arrive at a conclusion."
Cuccinelli said the secretary of education would have the final word on the administrative appeal. If dissatisfied, Virginia Tech could challenge the decision in federal court, he said.
Many victims' family members have maintained that Virginia Tech officials should acknowledge their mistakes, apologize and pay the fine.
"The appeal will take months, if not years, and cost taxpayers many, many more dollars than the fine itself," said Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was shot and wounded. She added that the university has an obligation to inform students and staff of an emergency.
Cuccinelli said the families' views were considered in the deliberations over whether to appeal.
"We certainly considered other factors and discussed those with the leadership at Virginia Tech," he said. "This was based on what we thought was best for Virginia Tech, including the whole community."
Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said: "The easiest thing to do would be let it go and pay the fine, but as the attorney general said, it's not about the money – it's about the process."
Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton said that "the real issue" is Virginia Tech's response to the shootings and making sure nothing like that happens again.
"In the end, this is about keeping students safe and learning, which is a goal we all share," Hamilton said.
A state commission that investigated the Tech shootings also found that the university erred by failing to notify the campus sooner. The state reached an $11 million settlement with many of the victims' families. Two families are suing Tech officials for $10 million. That case is set for trial in September.
"Tech should just come out, pay the fine and move on, but they won't because of the two pending lawsuits," said Suzanne Grimes, whose son Kevin Sterne was injured in the shootings. "They'll still deny that they did anything wrong that morning. That's a real shame."
In the letter appealing the decision, Cuccinelli's office called the department's findings "arbitrary and capricious." The letter said the law at the time was "vague at best" and left discretion to the university in the timing and content of the alert.
Associated Press writer Dena Potter contributed to this report.