Nearly four years after a campus shootings left 33 people dead, Virginia Tech is fined $55,000 by the U.S. Department of Education for waiting too long to notify the entire campus once shooting began. We find out what the fine signifies and hear how the university is responding.
- Sara Lipka Staff reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education covering student affairs, legal issues and campus life.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, "Food Wednesday," foraging for food growing wild. But first, nearly four years ago, a gunman killed over 30 other people and himself at Virginia Tech University. Over a dozen others were wounded. Now, the school is being fined by the U.S. Department of Education to the tune of $50,000 -- $55,000.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhile the Education Department has publicly said, Tech deserves a more severe punishment, the school intends to appeal. At the heart of the matter is whether students, faculty and staff were warned about the shooter in a timely manner. But the Department of Education has not defined timely. Here to discuss the find and its implications is Sara Lipka. She's a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education who has been following the story of Virginia Tech since the shooting in 2007. Sara Lipka, thank you for joining us.
MS. SARA LIPKAGlad to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIVirginia Tech is a large school with presumably a lot of resources. Is $55,000 a slap on the wrist or is there more to this Department of Education action?
LIPKAThe fine that the Education Department set is largely symbolic. The reason it's so low is that the Higher Education Act has fines of $25,000 and the crime reporting law that's part of the Higher Education Act has to follow that standard. It was raised for inflation a little while back, which is why now it's at $27,500. So the amount of the fine is insignificant for a university with an operating budget of $1.1 billion.
LIPKABut the fact that they were fined when so few institutions have been fined in the history of this crime reporting law -- this campus crime reporting law, that's symbolic. And that's a big deal.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to comment on the fine or what you see as its implication, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Were you a loved one or were you -- or was a loved one at Virginia Tech in 2007? How do you feel about the fine that's been imposed? Again, 800-433-8850 or you can send us a tweet at kojoshow, an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Sara Lipka, on April 16, 2007, there was a period of two hours between shootings in one tech building, Johnston Hall and the massacre that took place in Norris hall. What do Virginia Tech police have to say, as far as their actions during that time?
LIPKAWhat the police officers at Virginia Tech have said is that they responded to a report of a shooting at 7:15 that was in a dormitory and they found two victims there. And their assessment was that there was probably a domestic dispute and they began trailing a suspect at the time. Turned out not to be the person who had shot the victims in the residence hall. But they were on a trial of someone they thought had fled campus.
NNAMDISince the shooting in 2007, what changes has Virginia Tech made in terms of security?
LIPKAVirginia Tech has done quite a bit. And not only Virginia Tech, but many universities have really tried to improve their emergency notification systems. Text message notification systems have become the most common. They're also message boards that are displayed in different university locations. Some campuses have sirens. Virginia Tech has also put locks on doors in academic buildings so that they can be locked from the inside.
LIPKAA lot of campuses have also developed what they call, Behavior Intervention Teams, which are groups of law enforcement officers, counselors, faculty members, staff members who look at any behavior that may have been concerning on the campus, students who have what may turn out to be initial signs of violent behavior later.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, we're talking to Sara Lipka. She's a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. She's been following the story of Virginia Tech since the shooting in 2007. Do you or your children attend Virginia Tech? Do you feel that there has been enough done in terms of security? Call us 800-433-8850. Sara Lipka, do you have a sense or any sense of how the families of the victims of the shooting are reacting at this point?
LIPKAI know that there was a parent of a student who was wounded in the shooting who said that even though the fine wasn't very much, it was still important, as we were discussing before, symbolically that Virginia Tech was told by federal authorities that they handled the situation wrong.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Michael in Vienna, Va. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHi, I -- you know, even though I don't know a whole lot of the back story about the Virginia Tech shooting, I just feel that -- I'm from New York City, originally, and I attended St. Johns University there. And on campus, there were on campus police officers, some metal protectors and I'm kind of familiar with the precautions universities take, especially in a high risk area like New York City. But the fact of the matter is that this shooting, although tragic, you know, you can't really prepare for every possible tragedy.
MICHAELAnd there are only a certain amount of safeguards that you can take. In no way am I belittling the event. It was very, very tragic. But I just feel like fining Virginia Tech, even though we can argue back and forth whether the precautions they took were timely, quote/unquote or not -- you know, I think that the fact of the matter is that you really can never prepare for every eventuality. And I think the fine, although as quoted by your guest, is in fact just really a slap on the wrist when the budget's $1.1 billion.
MICHAELI think, Virginia Tech got a kind of a bad rap for this. Because, again, you know, bad things happen and if crazy people do crazy things, you can't really prepare for that.
NNAMDIMichael, what might help us to understand this better is the report issued by the Department of Education regarding Virginia Techs actions. Sara Lipka, what does this report say and how damaging, how significant is it?
LIPKAThe report said that the warning the university did issue was too late and too vague. The first shootings were at 7:15, that warning went out by e-mail at 9:26 in the morning so just over two hours later. And minutes after that, the second shooting began in the academic building. So what the Education Department said was that the warning should've come sooner and it should've included more specific information. For example, that there had been fatalities in the early shooting so that people would've interpreted the severity of it.
NNAMDIIt's said -- they said the warning should have been more timely, but apparently the Education Department did not indicate in more specific terms what timely would mean in that situation.
LIPKAThere's been a lot of confusion about this. The Clery Act, which is the campus crime reporting law, requires timely warnings, which are kind of, like crime alerts in a neighborhood. Notices you might see go up about a burglary or a rape and encouraging people to take precautions. And on university campuses, those timely warnings were commonly posted in about 24 hours after an incident, sometimes by printed flyer. But then there was a move toward emergency notification, which would be an immediate message about an active threat.
LIPKAAnd there were some lobbying of Congress for there to be a 30 minute time limit on those emergency notifications. And the 30 minute time didn't make it in. There was a lot of opposition from campus security officers who said, in that timeframe, we might not be able to get helpful information to our campus."
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Michael, thank you for your call. On to Scott in Chevy Chase, Md. Scott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SCOTTThank you, Kojo. I was the chief of a division at a federal institution and we received our annual training on identifying signs of workplace violence. The secretary in our department seemed to exhibit many of those signs. We had had many altercations and actually called the police on her several times. There was a checklist from the office of personnel management on 14 indicators for a person whose likelihood -- likely to get engaged in workplace violence.
SCOTTAnd the instructions were that if a person checked off on four of these, to notify one's superiors. Well, she checked off on 11 and we were quite alarmed. We notified her superiors, but were told that until she committed a actual violent act, we -- they could not do anything to intervene. This was before the Virginia Tech setting. But we were very disappointed and frustrated by the seeming inability of the office of personnel management in this case to take any action on someone who terrified us in the office.
NNAMDIScott, thank you very much for your call. Sara Lipka, anything done at Virginia Tech in terms of trying to identify troubled students or troubled individuals on campus ahead of time so that this could be avoided in the future?
LIPKAThere's definitely been a lot of that. There was information after the shootings about troubling writings that the student had submitted for some of his courses. And this is a touchy subject because counselors who work on college campuses don't want there to be a stigma around mental health issues. Some people are anxious or depressed or troubled and, in most cases, they're not violent. So they don't want people to start flagging anyone with unusual behavior.
LIPKAParticularly on a college campus that encourages eccentric or quirky behavior. But there's definitely been more attention to anything that raises a red flag. And I think since Virginia Tech, campuses have erred on the side of letting people know of students or employees who are causing that kind of concern.
NNAMDIYou may have answered this question before, but it came in the form of a comment on our website from Ileana. It says, "What could Tech have done better? Could you let us know what the Department of Education thinks Virginia Tech should have done differently? Without that info, there's no way to tell if it's too harsh or not enough," the fine that is.
LIPKASure. What the Education Department seems to think is that Virginia Tech should have issued a campus-wide warning sooner and should've included more specific information, giving people advice to stay inside, to lock their doors, to try to minimize large crowds in areas where a determined shooter could have found victims. The harshest critics of Virginia Tech say that these administrators were in a long bureaucratic meeting trying to decide what to do and prioritizing their concern over the image of the university more than the safety of the campus. That's what the harsh critics say.
NNAMDIHere is Dave in Ashburn, Va. Dave, your turn.
DAVEHi, thanks, Kojo. Very interesting show. I'm the parent of two sons at Virginia Tech. My oldest son was outside of Norris when the shooting started. Now, luckily for him, he had read the e-mail that came out. I think it was like 9:26. He was with a female student who thought it was construction noise and he said to her, I don't know. I read an e-mail about some type of shooting. Maybe we should turn around.
DAVEAnd then, it was a little bit after that, things started breaking loose. While I think Virginia Tech is a fine school, there's no question that how they handled this was extremely poor. My concern is that I'm not sure how much accountability, in terms of going in to the administrators, who, for example, were letting their friends and family know, prior to the e-mail going out, to everyone, that listen, don't go on campus today because there's been a shooting.
DAVESo I know that there's the $11 million lawsuit. There's a few people that held out on that. You know, $55,000 is noise. They've done a lot of things to improve it, but what I don't know, quite honestly, and perhaps lady here could expand on that, is how much have they gone in and really taken out the people or removed the people from their position who did not do their job?
NNAMDIThere's one question, Sara Lipka, our caller says that $55,000 is just noise, so to speak. And would like to know who has been held accountable for this.
LIPKA$55,000 is noise, but the fines do send a message to Virginia Tech and to all other universities...
NNAMDII was about to ask how other schools are likely to react to that.
LIPKAI think what other schools are likely to do is to take notice that the Education Department thinks notification should come almost immediately, that two hours is too long. That these notifications have to come very quickly and universities are going to have to follow that guidance unless they want to find themselves fined and kind of publicly taken to account for their actions.
NNAMDIAnd our caller mentioned lawsuits. At least two of the families are still suing, it's my understanding.
LIPKAVirginia Tech did reach a settlement with many of the victim's families, but there are two families that didn't participate in that settlement so their lawsuits are pending. And I think this finding by the Education Department, the fine, but also the very sharp language that the Education Department used, including that they wished they could've fined more, I think those messages will figure prominently in the resolution of those two pending lawsuits.
NNAMDISara Lipka's a reporter for "The Chronicle of Higher Education." She's been following the story of Virginia Tech since the shooting in 2007. Dave, thank you for your call. Here is Pete, in Kearneysville, W. Va. Pete, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETEThanks for taking the call, but I think that your guest just answered my question. I was wondering what impact this finding would have on pending lawsuits. So, thank you, it's an interesting show and I appreciate the chance to talk to you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. On now to John in McLean, Va. Hi, John.
JOHNHow are you, Kojo?
JOHNI had a son in Virginia Tech at the time of the incident and my son was in the next block. The way the shooter first killed the R.A. and if he had made a mistake, he would've gone into my son's hall of residence. The point I want to add is that there is a lawsuit going on for two of the victims and one piece of information that came out in the drawn out situation is that before the university authorities issued the warning to the students, they issued warnings to their own families.
NNAMDIYes, a previous caller made the same point.
JOHNWhich means it's not just that the university was sloppy, but they were taking care of their own before the students over whom they have stewardship. That needs to come out. I think the penalty is very small for that kind of negligence or -- I don't know how you describe it. Thank you.
NNAMDICare to comment at all, Sara Lipka?
LIPKAAgain, many people have made the point that this fine is small. I think that the reputational effect for Virginia Tech is more significant and I think the cost of their settlements and the investigations that they commissioned and of what may come from these pending lawsuits will be much more significant than the fine itself.
NNAMDIOn to Brett, in Vienna, Va. Brett, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRETTYes, good morning and thank you for this show. You know, a couple of the points, Ms. Lipka, you just made, I think, are very important. We have to ask ourselves what the purpose of the fine is. We have gotten to a point in society where we say, by gosh, you know, this bad thing happened, it should be millions of dollars.
BRETTAnd that speaks to the need for court reform, which is important here. But the purpose of that fine is to make a finding. And when a finding has been made, Ms. Lipka's right, that has huge implications for reputation, for any disciplinary action that could be taken in the future and for other settlements.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
BRETTIt's a statement by an authoritative voice that says, we found something and by the way, we're assessing twice the normal fine because we want to make a point that we saw some specific things wrong.
NNAMDIIn other words -- go ahead. In other words, Sara Lipka, this fine is not merely symbolic, but it does ultimately have some -- could have some significant, practical impact?
LIPKAI think it sends a message to other universities, as well as to Virginia Tech, that the Education Department expects there to be, and the public expects there to be, immediate notifications of emergencies.
NNAMDIAnd it also can have some impact on the image of Virginia Tech University. The fact that the Education Department has said that the fine is $55,000, it's my understanding that this not necessarily those -- Brett says twice the normal fine. It's two fines for violations of the same regulation.
LIPKAThe Education Department found two violations. One violation was not having issued the notification early enough and the second violation was not having followed an existing policy that Virginia Tech had in place about how to issue those warnings.
NNAMDIAnd what's the relationship between the individual policies of the university and the Clery Act? Do the policies of universities have to be in accordance with the Clery Act?
LIPKAWhat the Clery Act requires is that each year, universities report their policies, both to the federal government and publicly, disseminating them to campus on things like emergency response and how those messages are disseminated to campus. And so those kinds of policies are developed by the universities autonomously, but have to be reported both to the federal government and to the campus.
NNAMDIThe Clery Act, which requires timely warning of serious crimes, is named after Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery, who was murdered in her dorm in 1986. Sara Lipka is a reporter for "The Chronicle of Higher Education." She's been following the story of Virginia Tech since the shooting in 2007. Sara, thank you for joining us.
LIPKAThank you Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, "Foraging For Food Growing Wild." It's "Food Wednesday." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.