By Brandon Shulleeta
RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - A judge has thrown out a fine imposed by federal education officials against Virginia Tech, finding the school did not wait too long under federal law to alert students of the first shootings in a 2007 rampage that left 32 innocent people dead.
The U.S. Department of Education last year ordered the university to pay a $55,000 fine, the maximum allowed for violations of the federal Clery Act, which requires timely warnings of crimes on campuses.
University officials waited more than two hours before notifying the campus that a shooting had occurred. The massacre that followed by Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho was the deadliest in modern U.S. history.
The school appealed the fine, arguing that it had acted appropriately and asking for the penalty to be dismissed. In a ruling released late on Thursday, U.S. Department of Education Chief Administrative Law Judge Ernest Canellos sided with Virginia Tech.
"This was not an unreasonable amount of time in which to issue a warning," Canellos said in his ruling. "Yes, the warning could have gone out sooner, and in hindsight it is beyond regretful that it did not."
The Education Department has 30 days to appeal the decision to its secretary. A spokesman said the department was still weighing its options.
According to the judge's ruling, Cho first killed two students in a dorm room at about 7:15 a.m. in April 2007, according to the ruling. A university officer arrived at the murder scene about nine minutes later.
A university policy group convened at 8:25 a.m. to discuss the shooting and how to notify the campus community, but didn't notify students until 9:26 a.m.
Cho continued his shooting spree on the campus at 9:40 a.m. He killed 32 people before committing suicide.
An eight-member governor's review panel said in 2007 that Virginia Tech's handling of the shootings was inadequate.
School officials and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said on Friday that the judge issued an appropriate ruling.
"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," Cuccinelli said in a prepared statement.
Since the shooting, Virginia Tech has led the way in creating emergency notification systems that alert students of danger through emails, text messages and social media, said university spokesman Larry Hincker.
Students were notified of a shooting on campus last year within about 12 minutes, he said.
"All of higher education changed on that day," Hincker said. "There was no such thing in 2007 as emergency notification systems, certainly not to the degree we have today."
Earlier this month, a jury found Virginia Tech negligent by being slow to issue a campus warning and recommended that the families of two slain students be awarded $4 million each. Virginia law caps awards against the state at $100,000.
(Editing By Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)
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