By Colleen Jenkins
(Reuters) - Virginia Tech on Monday will mark the fifth anniversary of the deadliest act of gun violence in modern U.S. history, a massacre that killed 32 people, prompted congressional action and spurred universities nationwide to enhance their alert systems.
In a sign of healing amid several days of vigils and remembrances in Blacksburg, Virginia, the school for the first time will hold classes on the anniversary of the April 16, 2007 shooting, officials said.
"Being back in the classroom this year I think is an important step forward," said university spokesman Mark Owczarski. "Because that's what we do, that's what this community does."
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell ordered a statewide moment of silence be held on Monday at 9:43 a.m., the time of the shooting in the classroom building.
Deadly school shootings have again been in the news, including a rampage two weeks ago at a small college in California in which seven people were killed. A former nursing student at the college has been charged with murder.
The 2007 Virginia Tech incident stands out among such tragedies. Besides the number of victims, there is continued debate about whether university officials took too long to notify students and faculty about two killings on campus hours before a mentally ill student gunman took 30 more lives.
Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed two students in a residence hall at about 7:15 a.m. More than two hours later, he chained the doors of a classroom building shut and methodically gunned down students and teachers. Thirty others died and more than two dozen were wounded before Cho committed suicide.
A state panel in August 2007 found lives could have been saved if officials had not waited until 9:26 a.m. to notify the campus of the initial shooting. In March, a jury awarded $4 million each to the families of two slain students after determining the school negligent for its slow alert.
But a judge last month ruled Virginia Tech should not have to pay a $55,000 fine imposed by federal education officials who said the school violated the Clery Act, which requires timely warnings of crimes on campuses.
The U.S. Department of Education has not decided whether to appeal, a spokeswoman said on Friday.
Virginia Tech says the shooting in 2007 spurred universities to create emergency notification systems that alert students of danger through emails, text messages and social media.
Such procedures are not the focus of the anniversary events being held at the school, nor are changes made by Congress after the rampage that were aimed at making it harder for people with mental illness to buy guns.
The purpose of the activities is to remember the lives lost and to "embrace the importance of community," Owczarski said.
A remembrance run on Saturday drew 6,800 runners, Owczarski said. They released thousands of orange and maroon balloons -- the school's colors -- along with 32 white balloons in honor of the victims.
A community picnic is scheduled for Monday, and Governor McDonnell is set to speak at a commemoration and candlelight vigil at the school that night.
Most students who attended the school when the shooting occurred have now moved on, but the events of April 16, 2007, remain a part of the Hokie community, Owczarski said.
"It is woven into who we are, whether you were here or not," he said.
(Reporting By Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Jackie Frank)