Virginia Tech Ruled Negligent in 2007 Massacre

A jury has awarded $4 million each to two families whose daughters, Julia Pryde of New Jersey and Erin Peterson of Virginia, were killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech University massacre. 32 were killed by student Seung-Hui Cho before he turned the gun on himself. Virginia Tech has been found negligent for being too slow to issue a campus warning after two students had been shot by Cho on the morning of April 16, 2007.

According to Virginia law, awards in civil cases must be capped at $100,000 and government lawyers have requested that the amounts be reduced to the legal limit. Virginia attorney general spokesman Brian Gottstein says that, by law, the juries were not told of the cap until after the decision. The university itself has expressed “disappointment” with the verdict, with Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski saying that the administration and law enforcement “did their absolute best” with informing the campus based on the information they had at the time; the university is planning to discuss the verdict further with the state attorney general. Owczarski described the “heinous crimes committed by Seung-Hui Cho” as “an unprecedented act of violence that no one could have foreseen,” adding that the university has always placed the “safety and well being” of its students first.

Clearly the aftermath, legal and otherwise, of the 2007 massacre puts the university in an extremely difficult position. Virginia Tech must prove to its current and prospective students and their families that the university is indeed a safe and secure environment; an incident last year in which a gunman shot a campus police officer and then himself certainly brought these into question.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education observes, the jury’s verdict is a sign of higher expectations on colleges and universities. Pryde was in a hydrology class and Peterson in a French class when Cho burst into the classrooms in Norris Hall and started firing; university officials, knowing about the first two shootings, held a “series of meetings” and then issued a warning — but by then, Cho was already in the classroom building and had chained the doors shut.

The two women’s parents have charged that, had university officials more promptly warned the campus about the two earlier shootings in a residence hall and that the gunman was still unaccounted for, their daughters would have altered their schedules and not been in the classroom building. The Prydes and the Prices were the only two families who lost relatives in the shootings who did not agree to a $11-million settlement with the university and state that was filed in 2008, before anyone had sued.

S. Daniel Carter, a national expert on campus safety and advocate for the victims at Virginia Tech, points out that, according to Department of Education guidelines published in 2005, university administrators are supposed to issue warnings ”as soon as the pertinent information is available.” Instead, says Carter to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Virginia Tech ”got bogged down in a bureaucratic process.” Carter has lobbied unsuccessfully for a federal requirement for colleges to issue warnings within 30 minutes of emergencies; he does think that, in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy, colleges have become “profoundly safer,” with better crisis plans.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education found that Virginia Tech had violated a campus crime-reporting law as its warning was “too late and too vague” and fined the university $55,000. Virginia Tech is currently in the process of appealing that fine.

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