Virginia State Police crime scene investigation vehicles outside outside Norris Hall, April 2007.
A U.S. Department of Education judge has overturned a federal fine imposed on Virginia Tech, saying the school did not violate the law in its response to the campus massacre that left 33 people dead in 2007.
Virginia Tech had appealed the $55,000 fine issued by the Virginia Department of Education.
At issue was whether the university waited too long to alert the campus after two students were fatally shot in a dormitory. The Clery Act requires schools to issue timely warnings of campus threats.
An email went out more than two hours after the dorm shootings, mentioning only a "shooting incident" and didn't say anyone had died.
By that time, student Seung-Hui Cho was chaining the doors at Norris Hall, where he killed 30 students and faculty members before committing suicide. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Campus officials issued a specific warning that a gunman was loose on campus via emails to 37,000 people, almost 10 minutes after Cho began the Norris slaughter.
"This was not an unreasonable amount of time in which to issue a warning. ...If the later shootings at Norris Hall had not occurred, it is doubtful that the timing of the email would have been perceived as too late," the ruling said.
Virginia Tech had appealed the fine issued by the Department of Education. It argued at a hearing in Washington in December that it complied with the law based on the best practices at the time.
The ruling by Canellos doesn't necessarily end the case, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan has the final say at the agency level. Virginia Tech could then appeal in U.S. District Court if it were unhappy with Duncan's final decision
University spokesman Larry Hincker said Friday school officials are satisfied by the decision overturning the ruling, but that sadness remains about the slayings nearly five years ago.
The shootings resulted in the development of new higher education laws, policies and practices.
"We hope that lessons from this unforeseeable crime will continue to inform the practices affecting campus safety throughout the nation and the world," Hincker said in a statement.
The Education Department had no immediate comment Friday.
"For us, this appeal was not about the fines as much as it was about the arbitrary way the U.S. Department of Education tried to apply the law against a school that responded reasonably while an unforeseen and unprecedented crime was occurring on campus," Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said Friday in a statement.
The decision comes about two weeks after a jury in a
found the university was negligent in its actions on the day of the mass shootings. The lawsuit was filed by parents of two slain Virginia Tech students. The state is considering whether to appeal that ruling.