Virginia Tech seeks to block $55,000 fine

WASHINGTON (AP) — As a massacre unfolded on its campus in 2007, Virginia Tech acted appropriately to alert the campus, school officials say.

Wendell Flinchum, the university's police chief, is among the Virginia Tech officials expected to testify Thursday before an administrative judge during the second day of a hearing on whether the school should pay $55,000 in fines in connection to the shooting rampage that left 33 dead, including the shooter.

The Education Department said the school violated the law by waiting more than two hours after two students were shot dead in a dormitory before sending out a warning by email. By that time, student gunman Seung-Hui Cho was chaining the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more people and then himself. The department says the email was too vague because it mentioned only a "shooting incident" but not the deaths.

Parents of some of the victims have testified that they think their children would've stayed away from campus if they'd known of a threat, and the Education Department said the school had an obligation to protect the community.

Representing the university, Peter Messitt, a senior assistant attorney general for Virginia, said police responding to the initial report of shootings in a dormitory believed the victims were "targeted for a reason" in a domestic incident and thought the shooter had left campus. The university contends that it followed standard protocols in place on campuses then and that the department is holding it to a higher standard than was in place at the time.

Specifically, the university faces charges of failure to issue a timely warning and failure to follow its own procedures for providing notification.

James Moore, an Education Department official, testified that even if it had been a domestic incident, that doesn't matter because there were still enough signs that a gunman was on the loose to warrant the school acting more quickly.

The hearing is before an Education Department administrative judge, Ernest C. Canellos.

The fines by the Education Department were levied under a 1990 law known as the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to provide warnings in a timely manner and to report the number of crimes on campus. The law was named after Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered in her dorm room by another student in 1986. The maximum fine per violation under the law is $27,500. Institutions can also lose their ability to offer federal student loans, but that has never happened.

An appeals hearing in Clery Act cases is rare. Experts say institutions typically agree to fines and take corrective action or reach an agreement with the Education Department.