Wednesday, March 30, 2011

About that $55,000 Virginia Tech fine: Josh, you got questions? We've got answers ... sort of . . .

Late yesterday afternoon, I posted on the WMRA Facebook page that Virginia Tech  would be fined  $55,000 by the federal government for its handling of the events of April 16th, 2007.

Kevin Sterne is carried out of Norris Hall at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007
(Alan Kim, Roanoke Times, via, AP file photo
The Chronicle of Higher Education began this morning's article on that fine by writing:
The U.S. Department of Education informed Virginia Tech on Tuesday that it intends to fine the institution $55,000 for violations of a federal campus crime-reporting law in its response to the shootings that claimed 33 lives on the Blacksburg, Va., campus four years ago.
The university plans to appeal the fines. 
The department's announcement, in a letter to Virginia Tech's president, Charles W. Steger, affirms the findings in a final ruling issued in December that determined Virginia Tech had violated the Clery Act by failing to provide a "timely warning" on the day of the shootings, April 16, 2007. 
Early that morning, a student, Seung-Hui Cho, fatally shot two other students in a residence hall. The university sent a campuswide e-mail about the incident more than two hours later, at 9:26 a.m. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Cho entered an academic building and began shooting at students and professors. Thirty more people were killed before the gunman killed himself. 
The Education Department's report said that the e-mail alert that went out at 9:26 was too vague—it mentioned a "shooting incident" but not any fatalities—and too late. The report also asserts that the university failed to follow its own policy for issuing timely warnings.
Virginia Tech has announced that it will appeal the ruling.

Back to the WMRA Facebook Page.. .

Josh Avni responded to news of the fine by writing: "I'd like to know what changes were made to VT policy after-the-fact. Regardless of whether or not they believe that they acted appropriately under their system, 33 deaths (or any) are unacceptable. Period."

Good question, I thought. So here, sort of, is an answer...

A lot of campus security procedures appear to hang on the Jeanne Clery Act,  passed by Congress in 1990. The Act was named for a Lehigh University first year student who, in 1986, had been raped and murdered by a fellow student in her residence hall.. (And yes, the squabbling halls of Congress did take four years to respond.) 

The original Clery Act basically required colleges and universities who accept any kind of federal funding to make their security policies and statistics on certain specified crime freely available to the public. Those specified crimes are homicide, murder, manslaughter, sexual offenses, aggravated assault, robbery and burglary, drug and alcohol violations, arson, possession of illegal weapons.

The Act also included these rather vague instructions for providing Special Alerts.
• Special Alerts:  If circumstances warrant, special crime alerts and notifications can be prepared and distributed throughout the campus. 
Virginia Tech's responses on April 16th were criticized by many as a bit sluggish. In response the the shootings., President George W. Bush signed amendments to the Clery Act in 2008. Among them, as summarized by Security on Campus, was one that addressed the sluggishness of the Virginia Tech's actions on the day of the shooting:
The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) adds a statement of “emergency response and evacuation procedures” to the Clery Act annual security report (ASR) produced by institutions of postsecondary education. The policy disclosure “shall include” a statement that the institution will “immediately notify the campus community upon the confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff” on campus (as defined in the Act). Warnings may only be withheld if they would compromise efforts to contain the emergency. Accompanying “report” language calls for warnings to be issued “without any delay” following confirmation of an emergency.
Addressing the gun control laws in effect at the time -- the ones that allowed  Seun-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, to purchase a gun -- I found  this annotated entry in Wikipedia:
The massacre prompted the state of Virginia to close legal loopholes that had previously allowed Cho, an individual adjudicated as mentally unsound, to purchase handguns without detection by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). It also led to passage of the first major federal gun control measure in more than 13 years. The law strengthening the NICS was signed by President George W. Bush on January 5, 2008.[10] 
The Virginia Tech Review Panel, a state-appointed body assigned to review the incident, criticized Virginia Tech administrators for failing to take action that might have reduced the number of casualties. The panel's report also reviewed gun laws and pointed out gaps in mental health care as well as privacy laws that left Cho's deteriorating condition in college untreated.
Colleges have also slowly begun to address the prickly balance between safety and privacy when it comes to concerns about their students' mental health. For example, North Carolina's State Board of Community Colleges recently amended its admissions policy to include a mental health clause. According to 
The amendment to the state’s admission policy reads: a college’s board of trustees may refuse “admission to any applicant if it is necessary to protect the health or safety of the applicant or other individuals … when there is an articulable, imminent, and significant threat.”

Finally, I found this interchange as a "best answer" on It was posted 4 months ago in response to a less Tech-centered version of the same question Josh asked yesterday on the WMRA Facebook page: What has changed at colleges and universities after the Virginia Tech shootings? 
Oddly, very little. 
In Virginia (where the shooting occurred) many schools have instituted new warning systems and have incorporated text messaging into the system. If there is an alert you will get a text message.
Most schools now practice fire drills more often. Now, a fire drill involves the evacuation of a building so it can be used in case of a fire or in case something occurs that requires the evacuation of the building. 
However, there have been drawbacks. Virginia Commonwealth University actually got a law passed making it illegal to possess a weapon on school grounds. This is problematic because VCU is an urban campus and you have a mix of private property in between the school buildings. So, lots of non-VCU people are in the area and it's very spread out so you can go days without seeing a campus police officer. Also, VCU used to have one of the top criminal justice programs there and the law has made it difficult for many part time students who are currently in various aspects of the LE field. This can be suggested as a concept of focusing on the law abiding (which is easily regulated) as opposed to focusing on those active in breaking the law. Thus this is considered a "Mala Prohibita" argument (Bad because it is not allowed) versus a "Mala In Se" (Bad in itself) situation. 
With the recent budget crisis, many schools have cut back on their manpower in their security/police departments. In any budget issue, employee pay and benefits is the biggest budget issue and the one most easily managed by laying off personnel. 
Now a lot of the security is done just to make people feel safe but really does not offer very strong protection or it is security that is easily avoided. This is a situation of creating a "show" and having the appearance of providing safety which gets a larger response from the public. However, there was a paradigm shift in which law enforcement will now actively engage a shooter as opposed to setting up a perimeter and attempting to treat it as a hostage situation. 
This is both good and bad. This creates a police intervention of the situation as soon as they get on scene but is bad because the situation is confronted without proper intelligence on the issue and also without proper backup giving the advantage to the criminal.
I hope this helps.
I could find very little specifically addressing changes at Virginia Tech, probably because Tech is perceived as fighting an ongoing public relations battle about the shootings, as well as lawsuits filed by families of the victims.

Josh et al, this make anything any clearer?

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