In a much-anticipated report issued last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) concluded that Virginia Tech acted too slowly to alert students and staff about the ongoing rampage of mass murderer, Seung-Hui Cho. The report found that VT officials violated the Clery Act by failing to alert students of a dorm room shooting that left two people dead about two and a half hours before Cho went to Norris Hall and killed 30 more students and staff.
VT police were dispatched to the dorm at 7:24 a.m. on April 16, 2007. At 7:57 a.m., the office of the Executive Vice President was notified of the shootings but an email warning the campus did not issue until 9:26 a.m. Cho began his massacre about 20 minutes after the warning email was sent by University officials. The DOE concluded that the notice was not made in a “timely manner” as required by the Act, and that the warning itself was “… not prepared or disseminated in a manner to give clear and timely notice of the threat to the health and safety of campus community members.”
The report could cause a reconsideration of a ruling in a case brought by the families of two slain Virginia Tech students issued in January of this year. In that decision, Virginia Circuit Court Judge William N. Alexander II, dismissed claims of gross negligence against members of the Policy Group that coordinated Tech’s response on April 16, saying the facts did not state a sufficient cause of action against them. However the Judge did permit claims based on gross negligence to proceed against the University, and three members of its student counseling center ruling that Virginia Tech has a special duty to protect students from the known violent proclivities of Cho that had once spawned a court order requiring him to attend counseling.
The new DOE report could add another element to the case since an official finding of a violation of a 17-year-old federal statute could cause the Judge to re-open his decision that Tech officials acted properly in their response to the crisis.
Virginia subscribes to the archaic doctrine of sovereign immunity which bars most tort claims against State employees or the State unless proof of gross negligence can be shown. Because of this law and Virginia’s Tort Claims Act which partially abrogates sovereign immunity but limits recovery for negligence claims against the State to $1oo,000.00, most of the victims’ families accepted a settlement for the maximum amount allowed.
The families of Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson declined the State’s offer and filed their own suits alleging gross negligence against the University and various officials. Thursday’s report could make their proofs much easier. For its part, Tech denies that it acted too slowly and asserts in a prepared response to the report that its officials “acted appropriately in their response to the tragic events of April 16, 2007, based on the best information then available to them.”
Source: CNN, Richmond Times-Dispatch
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger