Punishing Educational Institutions for School Shootings: The Case of Virginia Tech University and ‘Timely Warnings’

As the last blog documented, the attributions of blame after a school shooting tend to focus on parties that are claimed to have failed to notice the warning signs given by the perpetrators and/or respond to the shooting properly. School shooting lawsuits are predicated on varying degrees of blame: firstly, the assumption that the schools are partly to blame for not pre-empting the shooting (whilst full responsibility for the attack would lie with the perpetrators who carried them out); secondly, that they are either partly or wholly responsible for their response to the attack. Establishing this blame against schools is the lawsuit which has a twofold purpose: getting the school to accept some responsibility regarding their negligence (i.e. acknowledging that they have failed to properly fulfil their institutional duties) and receiving monetary compensation. The accountability dimension has the additional purpose of making an example of the schools in question and, by implication, motivating other schools to ensure that such an attack does not occur on their premises. This idea is backed up by Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory that the primary purpose of punishment is to deter others. The imposition of a ‘negative wage,’ an undesirable payment of compensation settled by the wrongdoer, is the secondary component of this punishment. Monetary compensation paid by the wrongdoer has been the case in early Roman, Norse and English law and was typically awarded to the head of a household when a person or animal in their household was unjustly killed. Interestingly, in most languages, the notions of payment and punishment have been interconnected: for instance, in English there is the phrase ‘pay the penalty.’

The postings on the 23rd and 30th July discussed the delay in alerting staff and students the day of the Virginia Tech incident. As it transpired, the delay in communication constituted a violation of federal law, resulting in Virginia Tech being fined fifty-five thousand dollars by the U.S. Department of Education. The university appealed this and it was decided in early 2012 by the Education’s Chief Administrative Judge that the fine should be overturned. In late 2012, however, this fine was partially reinstated by the U.S. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who ruled that the university should pay a twenty-seven and a half thousand dollar fine for their alleged failure to provide a ‘timely warning’ on the day of the attack. The argument by the attorney of the claimants was that, upon hearing about the WAJ dorm shootings, the university locked down its Center for Professional and Continuing Education and cancelled that day’s bank deposits. These actions were said to have demonstrated ‘concerns that the crime might represent a continuing threat to the campus,’ yet steps were not taken to relay this information to students and staff until later on. In addition to this, ‘the respondent had not located the suspect, had not found the weapon, and was confronted with the distinct possibility that the gunman was armed and still at large.’

With that line of thought in mind, a number of the families of those killed and injured in the Virginia Tech incident filed claims for the attacks and received an eleven million dollar settlement from the state. Recently, the parents of two students killed brought a case against the university predicated on the basis that their daughters may have survived if communication had been more prompt. According to the attorney of the families, the evidence of the error was ‘the bodies of the young people on the floors of Norris Hall.’ Virginia Tech President, Charles Steger, and other VT officials attempted to counteract that charge by stating the VTPD investigation was misleading, because it concluded that the WAJ murders were the result of a domestic dispute rather than the start of a school shooting. In the end, the jury found the university negligent and the two families were awarded damages. The mother of one of the victims was quoted as stating: ‘Today we got what we wanted. The truth is out there.’ This gives further credence to the idea that these lawsuits act as a means of highlighting answerability.

[Material for this blog has been published in a chapter in the edited volume Reframing Punishment: Silencing, Dehumanisation and the Way Forward. The next blog post will return to the issue of threat assessment and managing threats post-incident.]

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