Virginia Tech marks 5 years since massacre

NEWARK — On the fifth anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez announced new legislation that would significantly stiffen the penalty on schools that fail to provide timely information about crimes on their campuses.

Menendez was joined by the families of two Virginia Tech victims who were from New Jersey. In the hours that followed the first shootings at the school, university officials failed to properly notify the public about the danger posed to the community, Menendez said.

“They didn’t alert the student body of the situation until 9:26 — two hours later,” Menedez said at a news conference today at the Rutgers University Law Center. “And in their campus-wide notification e-mail, Virginia Tech did not mention that two of their students had been killed or that the gunman was still at large.”

In the hours that followed, 30 more students were shot and killed by a lone gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, who ended the rampage by taking his own life. If the school had a better emergency plan in place and had revealed more details about what was happening, the outcome may have been different, the Democratic senator said.

“In an emergency situation, hindsight undoubtedly reveals that there could have been a better response,” Menendez said. “And in looking back, Virginia Tech could have and should have done much more than it did to ensure the safety of the students and the faculty.”

The U.S. Department of Education found the university took missteps and violated the Clery Act, the federal law that Menendez is trying to bolster, and levied a $55,000 fine against the Blacksburg school. But, last month, an administrative court judge overturned the fine and found that university officials’ actions didn’t violate the Clery Act.

Other schools, however, have been found in violation – a number since the shootings occurred. Under the current law, the most a school can be fined is $27,500 per violation. The largest fine ever levied is $357,000, the senator said.

“In today’s university system, where a college’s endowment can exceed a billion dollars, these fines are obviously not enough to incentivize schools to comply with the law,” he said.

The bill would allow for a university to be fined up to 10 percent of the federal funding it received the prior year, excluding money for student aid.

The families who gathered with Mendez for today’s announcement said the measure is what is needed to ensure colleges are doing the right thing. Harry and Karen Pryde of Middletown lost their daughter Julia in the shootings, while Michael and Teresa Pohle of Flemington lost their son Michael Jr. The bill is named for him.

Michael Sr. believes some schools are simply too concerned with their bottom line to take the steps to comply with the Clery Act, and officials may even want to hide the truth so as not to tarnish a university’s reputation. The law needs to be changed, he said, so schools comply.

 “How many more dead and wounded bodies must we see on the news before the talk ends and additional actions are taken,” he asked.

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