Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University was found guilty of negligence for failing to propmtly alert students that two people had been killed in a dorm, leading to the death of 30 others in the April 16, 2007 massacre, a jury found Wednesday according to a report by USA Today.
The parents of slain students Erin Peterson, 18, and Julia Pryde, 23, sued the univeristy for wrongful death, claiming that the school's decision to wait more than two hours to send a campuswide alert about the initial shooting left students and staff vulnerable for the attack, the article says. The initial alert also did not indicate that a gunman might still be at large.
The first warning of a gunman on the loose was sent 10 minutes after Virgina Tech senior Seung Hui Cho chained the doors of Norris Hall shut and started shooting students and professors in their classrooms, according to the article. If the alert had been sent out immediately after the shooting in West Ambler Johnston dorm, the families' attorney argued, the lives of the 30 people killed afterward might have been spared.
The state circuit court jury awardsed $4 million to each family, although the university is requesting a reduction in the judgement to $100,000 per family in accordance with the Virginia Tort Claims Act, the article says.
Virginia Tech is still insisting that it acted properly with the information it had at the time, with campus police initially believing that the dorm shootings were the fault of an angry boyfriend, not a potential campus-wide threat, USA Today reports. Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said he delayed the warning to avoid panic and grant univeristy officials time to notify the victims' parents.
"We do not believe that evidence presented at trial relative to the murders in West Ambler Johnston created an increased danger to teh campus that day," said Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski in a statement, USA Today says. "The heinous crimes committed by Seung-Hui Cho were an unprecedented act of violence that no one could have forseen."
"Today we got what we wanted," said Peterson's mother Celeste Peterson after the verdict. "The truth is out there, and that's all we ever wanted. We came here for the truth," reported USA Today.
Despite this, the U.S. Department of Education also found fault with Virgina Tech's reponse, fining the school $55,000 for failing to issue a timely warning, the highest amount the federal government can levy under the Clery Act, according to the article.
In the five years since the massacre, the univeristy has overhauled its emergency notification system. Classrooms are now outfitted with electronic bulletin boards that flast emergency messages, and the school can send alerts to students and staff on their phones and computers, the article says.