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Announcing Virginia Tech’s appeal of a fine linked to the 2007 massacre there, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli took the U.S. Department of Education to task in late April, calling its investigation and decision "appalling."
After a four-year probe into the tragedy -- in which student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 25 before taking his own life -- the DOE fined Tech $55,000 for failing to issue a timely warning during the shootings and not following school policies.
The penalty is the stiffest allowable under the federal Clery Act, which requires rapid reporting of crimes on college campuses. But officials also sharply rebuked the school, writing "Virginia Tech's violations warrant a fine far in excess of what is currently permissible under the statute."
Cuccinelli plans to appeal the fine. In a scathing written response, the Republican took exception to the department’s ruling and painted the investigation as shoddy.
"It is not just that federal bureaucrats are engaging in Monday-morning quarterbacking — it is that they have had four years’ worth of Monday mornings," Cuccinelli said in a news release. "Yet, in all that time, they have not once gotten into the car and driven down to Blacksburg to talk to the police chief or the university president or to anyone else who had to deal with these events in real-time. Their investigation — if you can call it that — appears deeply flawed, and their indifference to the facts on the ground is shocking."
Is it true that no department officials visited the scene of the massacre before reaching their decision? We decided to check.
Asked how the attorney general came to make such a claim, spokesman Brian Gottstein said that University Counsel Kay Heidbreder was the only member of the school’s policy group to speak who to anyone from DOE.
"It was over the phone and DOE did not visit the campus or speak to anyone else," Gottstein said in an email. "All Kay and the DOE representative discussed were procedural investigative issues. He asked no questions about what happened [on April 16, 2007]."
The easiest way to get started was to ask the Department of Education if anyone had visited Blacksburg during the investigation. We did that on April 29. Two weeks later, after asking a second time, we got a response.
"We had several conversations, interviews and email exchanges with school officials in the process of conducting this review, and there were numerous opportunities throughout the process for Virginia Tech to provide input – most notably as the school did in its official 72-page response to our draft report," wrote Sara Gast, a spokeswoman with the DOE.
"The lines of communication were certainly open, and they had multiple chances to respond and communicate with us throughout the entire process. However, because of the sensitive and legal nature of the proceedings, we did not meet with officials face-to-face," she added.
Called for comment, Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said that school officials did contribute to the report submitted to the DOE, but added that they were never asked to be interviewed or even submitted questions relating to the incident.
We should note that a state commission investigating the shootings interviewed 34 Tech officials before releasing a 2007 report that also concluded the university failed to issue a timely campus alert about the violence, which occurred over 2-1/2 hours. Virginia reached an $11 million settlement with many of the victims’ families. Two families have filed a $10 million suit against Tech officials that is scheduled for trial this fall.
Cuccinelli said DOE officials never visited Virginia Tech while probing the university’s response during the 2007 shootings that left 32 dead. He said the DOE investigators never conducted face-to-face interviews with the Tech officials making decisions that dreadful day.
A DOE spokeswoman acknowledged both points, although she said it did not taint the examination. She said there was plenty of communication via email and telephone.
We’ll let others debate Cuccinelli’s opinion on the integrity of DOE’s probe. But his claim that DOE investigators never visited Tech to conduct interviews is True.
Office of the Attorney General, Statement on Virginia Tech appeal, April 27, 2011
Email interview with Brian Gottstein, spokesman for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, April 29, 2011
Email interview with Sara Gaston, spokeswoman with the U.S. Department of Education, May 13, 2011
Office of the Attorney General, Appeal to the Department of Education, April 26, 2011
Associated Press, "Virginia Tech fined $55k for response to shootings," March 29, 2011
Virginia Tech Review Panel, Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech, August 2007.
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