Soon after Virginia Tech officials at a hearing defended actions taken to notify the campus as a 2007 shooting rampage unfolded, the university on Thursday issued a series of warnings about gunfire on its campus five hours away.
Following the 2007 shootings that left 33 people dead, Virginia Tech expanded its emergency notification systems. Alerts now go out by electronic message boards in classrooms, by text messages and other methods. Other colleges and universities have put in place similar systems.
Virginia Tech officials said a police officer and another person were shot and killed on campus Thursday, and a suspect remained on the loose. During about a one-hour period, the university issued four separate alerts, followed by additional notifications.
The alerts went out even as university officials, including the university's police chief, were in Washington for the administrative hearing about 260 miles from the campus in Blacksburg, Va. The hearing ended less than an hour before the first alert went out. Ernest C. Canellos, an Education Department administrative judge, said he would later issue a ruling on the hearing about Virginia Tech's handling of the shootings more than four years ago.
Universities are required under the Clery Act to provide warnings in a timely manner and to report the number of crimes on campus.
Virginia Tech has appealed a $55,000 fine levied after the 2007 shootings because it says it acted appropriately based on protocols on campuses at that time. The Education Department says the university violated the law by waiting more than two hours after two students were shot in a dorm on campus in the 2007 shootings before sending an email warning. By then, student gunman Seung-Hui Cho was chaining the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more people and then himself.
Wendell Flinchum, the police chief, testified that there were no immediate signs in the dorm at that time to indicate a threat to the campus. He said the shootings were believed to be an isolated domestic incident and that the shooter had fled.
Flinchum said that conclusion was based on the isolated nature of the dorm room, the lack of forced entry and what the victims were wearing _ the woman in pajamas, the man in boxer shorts.
The scene, he said, did not suggest an ongoing safety threat.
"I don't believe we could have known that from what the scene presented," Flinchum said.
He said the dead woman's boyfriend initially was identified as a "person of interest." Police were shown a social networking site with the boyfriend holding guns, Flinchum said, and were told he usually dropped her off on Mondays. The shootings took place on a Monday.
The university faces charges of failure to issue a timely warning and failure to follow its own procedures for providing notification.
Parents of some victims have testified that they think their loved ones would have stayed away from campus if they had known of a threat.
James Moore, a department official, testified that even if it had been a domestic incident, there were enough signs that a gunman was on the loose to warrant quicker campus alerts by the school.
The 1990 Clery Act 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 also can 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.
Kimberly Hefling can be followed at http://twitter.com/khefling
Virginia Tech: http://www.vt.edu
VTV Family Outreach Foundation: http://www.vtvfamilyfoundation.org
Clery Act: http://tinyurl.com/82kvc52
Security on Campus: http://www.securityoncampus.org