It’s more than a little ironic that an investigation into whether or not Virginia Tech officials acted in a “timely” fashion in the wake of the 2007 shooting has taken more than five years to complete.
Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan reinstated a $27,500 fine against Virginia Tech for failing to provide a timely warning to the campus community during the 2007 shooting rampage.
Duncan’s reinstatement reversed a ruling by the Education Department’s chief administrative judge, who concluded Virginia Tech did not violate the law and thus overruled a 2010 finding by an office within the department.
Under the Clery Act, which was enacted in 1990, universities that participate in federal financial aid programs are required to keep and disclose information about crime on or near campus and issue warnings during potential threats.
The shooting in 2007 brought the Virginia Tech administration under investigation and the bureaucracy of university campus security under scrutiny.
On April 16, 2007, campus police received a 911 call at 7:15 a.m. about gunshots in a dormitory. Officers arrived at the scene 15 minutes later, where they found one student dead and another critically injured.
Top administrators sent a campuswide email at 9:26 a.m. warning students and employees about a “shooting incident.” The email read, “The university community is urged to be cautious and asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious.”
Minutes after the email was sent, the same man in the dormitory opened fire again, this time in an academic building, where he killed 30 more students and professors, and himself.
Duncan’s Friday decision is the latest to come in a years-long investigation. Federal officials first determined the university had violated the Clery Act in December 2010, saying the warning at 9:26 a.m. came too late and was too vague.
The university appealed that finding, and an administrative judge for the department overturned it, saying that federal guidelines on timely warnings are unclear. An advocacy group representing survivors and victims of the shooting pushed for another appeal, and the decision came up to the secretary, who acknowledged that federal law does not define what a “timely warning is,” but also said the email that went out two hours after the first shooting was too late.
He also cited as evidence that administrators perceived an ongoing threat by referring to the lockdowns of campus facilities (one at 8 a.m. and one shortly after 9 a.m.), and the cancellation of trash pickups. That perception, his decision argued, suggested the administration’s warning could have been more urgent.
Virginia Tech officials immediately suggested that the university would appeal Duncan’s decision. Such an appeal would mark the first time a Clery Act investigation had gone out of the Department of Education and into federal court.
But it’s time to put the case to rest.
Yet another appeal drags the investigation out further, prolonging a question that has already been answered on three separate occasions. Rather than once again re-examine the Virginia Tech administration’s missteps (or argue that missteps weren’t made at all), move on.
Rather than get tangled up in bureaucracy, Virginia Tech and other college administrations can treat Duncan’s decision for what it is: a bar by which to measure campus safety and build a safer future for university communities.
In the wake of tragedy, it is important to reflect on past events in order to figure out how to move forward. But eventually, and certainly five years down the line, you have to actually move forward.