The federal government said Tuesday that it plans to issue the maximum possible fine against Virginia Tech — $55,000 — for violations of a campus safety law in connection with the 2007 shooting rampage that left more than 30 students and teachers dead.
A federal official wrote in a letter to university President Charles W. Steger that the penalty for failing to provide timely warnings about the threat to the campus on the day of the massacre should be greater.
"Virginia Tech's violations warrant a fine far in excess of what is currently permissible under the statute," Mary E. Gust, an official in the Education Department's Office of Federal Student Aid, wrote to Steger.
Her conclusion represented a stinging rebuke for Virginia Tech, which has sought for nearly four years to overcome wounds inflicted by the deadliest school massacre in U.S. history. It also bolstered the view of some relatives of the shooting victims that the university was negligent in efforts to protect the campus community.
Virginia Tech, which denies wrongdoing, said it will appeal the action.
"We believe that Virginia Tech administrators acted appropriately in their response to the tragic events of April 16, 2007, based on the best information then available to them at the time," university spokesman Larry Hincker said in a statement.
An attorney for two families of shooting victims that are suing university officials said Virginia Tech failed to give the campus community crucial information about the first two killings on the morning of the shootings.
"Instead of telling them the truth, they sent out a plain vanilla warning and decided to tell the faculty and students as little possible," Robert Hall, the attorney, said. "What was their explanation for not telling the truth? Why not put that out? What's the downside?"
For several months, the university has strongly contested the government's finding that it failed to comply with timely warning requirements on the day a mentally ill student, Seung Hui Cho, shot and killed 32 people before taking his own life. The government issued a preliminary finding of fault last May and confirmed that determination in December.
At issue is what the university should have done after two students — Cho's first victims — were discovered fatally shot in the West Ambler Johnston dormitory on the morning of the massacre. Gust's letter indicated that the first Virginia Tech police officers arrived at the scene about 7:24 a.m. and that Steger was aware of the incident by 8:11 a.m.
The university waited until 9:26 a.m. to issue a campus-wide e-mail alert about the shootings. The alert, according to Gust, did not mention that there had been a murder on campus and did not direct the community to take any safety measures. Soon afterward, Cho started killing teachers and other students in Norris Hall, an academic building.
Federal officials say that since the start of 2006, the Education Department has issued six fines in connection with violations of campus security provisions of the Clery Act. The largest, levied against Eastern Michigan University in 2007, was for $357,500, after officials mishandled communications following a campus murder. The size of such fines depends on the number and severity of violations.
Gust's letter indicated two violations in the Virginia Tech case: failure to provide timely warning and failure to follow a timely warning policy. The fines, if upheld, would be $27,500 for each offense.
The university contends that it is being judged unfairly.
"As we noted before, neither the Department of Education nor the Clery Act defines 'timely,'" Hincker said. "The university actions on April 16  were well within the standards and practices in effect at that time."
A spokesman for Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, said the governor was "disappointed" by the federal action.
"The university took all reasonable and appropriate steps in responding to an unprecedented tragedy," the spokesman, Tucker Martin, wrote in an email. "No one at the school was allowed to review any of the information the department utilized in reaching their decision, and no one from Virginia Tech was interviewed in preparation of this report."
In June 2008, an $11 million settlement was approved for most of the families of victims of the massacre, including those who were wounded. It was meant to shield the state from further legal action.
But the families of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde, two students who were slain, did not participate in the settlement. Their lawsuit, seeking damages for negligence, is pending in Montgomery County (Va.) Circuit Court.
Hall, the attorney for the families, said he was gratified by the Education Department's action.
"The fine reaffirms the position that we've taken is a reasonable one," Hall said. But he expressed doubt that the federal findings would be admitted as evidence in the case.