In a report issued Thursday, the Department of Education rejected Virginia Tech's argument that its response to the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history met standards in place at the time for providing notification.
Federal officials praised the university for steps it has taken since the shootings, but added: "While Virginia Tech's commitment to improved timely warning policies and procedures will hopefully make the university a safer place going forward, corrective actions do not diminish the seriousness of the violations."
The department in January found that Virginia Tech violated the federal Clery Act, which requires notification of crime on college campuses, because it failed to issue a timely warning to the campus after student Seung-Hio Choi shot and killed two students in a dormitory early on the morning of April 16, 2007. The massacre left 33 dead, including the gunman, who killed himself.
The report also determined that the school failed to follow its own procedures for providing such notification. Virginia Tech could be fined $27,500 for each violation, for a total of $55,000. The school also could face the loss of federal student financial aid, though such an outcome is considered unlikely. A determination will be made by a Department of Education panel.
Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said the school likely will appeal if it is sanctioned.
One victim's mother said she was glad the university is finally facing punishment for its actions, but she took more satisfaction from the inclusion in the report of actions that Virginia Tech officials took to protect themselves that morning. Victims' families had long wanted those details included in the report of a state panel that investigated the shootings.
"They couldn't fine enough money for what happened that day and how it altered our lives," said Suzanne Grimes, whose son Kevin Sterne was injured in the shootings. "It's more about the truth of what happened. That's what I sought for all these years."
Grimes and other victims' families fought to get included in the state report documentation that some Virginia Tech staffers informed family members and others about the shootings long before the notice went out to the entire campus.
The university says that one official advised her son to go to class anyway, while another only called to arrange for a baby sitter.
But the federal report notes that after word of the shootings spread but before the e-mail was sent to campus, a continuing education center was locked down, an official directed that the doors to his office be locked, the university's veterinary college was locked down and campus trash pickup was suspended.
"If the university had provided an appropriate timely warning after the first shootings (in the dormitory), the other members of the campus community may have had enough time to take similar actions to protect themselves," the report said.
Cho shot the first two victims in a dormitory around 7:15 a.m., but Virginia Tech officials did not send an e-mail to the campus community about the shootings until nearly 9:30 a.m., about the time Cho was chaining shut the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more students and faculty, then himself.
Virginia Tech argues that, relying on campus police, it first thought the shootings were domestic and that a suspect had been identified so there was no threat to campus. The education department rebuffed that argument, saying officials should have treated it as a threat because the shooter was on the loose.
The university argues that the Education department didn't define "timely" until 2009, when it added regulations to require immediate notification upon confirmation of a dangerous situation or an immediate threat to people on campus.
"Both the law and purposeful reasoned analysis require that the actions of that day be evaluated according to the information that was available to the university and its professionals at that time," Hincker, the Virginia Tech spokesman, said. "Anything else loses sight of the unthinkable and unprecedented nature of what occurred."
The report said that since 2005, the Department of Education has stated that the determination of whether a warning is timely is based on the nature of the crime and the continuing danger to the campus.
"The fact that an unknown shooter might be loose on campus made the situation an ongoing threat at that time, and it remained a threat until the shooter was apprehended," the report said.
A state commission impaneled to investigate the shootings also found that the university erred by failing to notify the campus sooner. The state reached an $11 million settlement with many of the victims' families. Two families have filed suit and are seeking $10 million in damages from university officials. A judge recently ruled those lawsuits could move forward.
An expert on the Clery Act said loss of federal aid is unlikely.
S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security On Campus, a nonprofit organization that monitors the Clery Act, said reviews based on the law are relatively rare and that the Virginia Tech review was the 35th in two decades. No school has ever lost federal funding, and the largest fine to be levied was $350,000 against Eastern Michigan University for failing to report the rape and murder of a student in a dormitory in 2006.
Carter said he found the university's response troubling.
"Our fundamental goal is not to place blame, but to make sure students are kept safer," he said of the Act. "But their policy arguments would be very detrimental to protecting students all across the country if they were to be accepted."