Testimony: Va. Tech president rejected apology

Friday, March 09, 2012

Virginia Tech's president rejected the idea of a public apology after the 2007 mass killings on his campus because he believed it would imply wrongdoing by the university, according to testimony Friday in a wrongful death trial.

A crisis manager hired by the school said in a deposition that President Charles Steger believed the university acted appropriately in its response to the rampage that left the gunman and 32 others dead. A civil lawsuit claims the university delayed alerting the campus, allowing the most deadly mass shooting in modern U.S. history to continue.

Depositions with three crisis managers were read in the morning, and Steger was scheduled to testify later Friday.

An attorney representing the parents of two students killed in the attacks asked crisis manager Karen Doyne whether Steger felt an apology was inappropriate, she replied, "That was my impression, at least publicly."

It was unclear from the deposition when the idea of an apology was rejected. The consultants said they worked with Steger for a year, during which time Doyne said she had 10 or 15 conversations with him.

Attorneys for the parents of victims Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson claim their daughters and others might have survived if the university had warned the campus earlier of the first slayings by student gunman Seung-Hui Cho. He shot and killed two students in a dormitory before continuing his attack hours later at a classroom building.

The state, the defendant in the case, maintains officials believed the first two killings were domestic violence and did not pose a wider threat to campus. They have said university officials acted on the best information available that morning.

The crisis management consultants were hired in the weeks after the shooting as more than 500 reporters descended on the Blacksburg campus.

One of the companies, Firestorm Solutions LLC, was contacted by Steger two days after the shootings. A part of Firestorm's services was to shape the university's message after the killings, including vetting media interviews.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs are attempting to show that the university was intent on restoring its reputation and glossing over missteps that occurred during the first hours of Cho's killing rampage.

The dorm shootings occurred shortly after 7 a.m. but no campus-wide alert was issued until 9:26 a.m. An email only stated a "shooting incident" had occurred but did not mention the gunman remained at large. It urged students to "be cautious" but did not recommend any other action.

After shots rang out on campus at 9:42 a.m., officials issued a more ominous alert: "A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows."

But by then, Cho had chained the doors at Norris Hall and killed 30 students and faculty in the classroom building. He then killed himself.

The trial has presented Virginia Tech officials who told of the anguished hours between the first shootings and the Norris carnage. They heeded the counsel of police who were convinced the dorm shootings were isolated and that the larger campus community was not threatened.

University officials said they did not want to reveal the full circumstances of the first shootings until the victims' parents could be notified and to avoid a campus panic.

The plaintiffs' attorneys said the university had previously issued campus alerts for lesser events, such as bomb threats.

The Prydes and the Petersons are seeking $100,000 each and a full official accounting of events that day. A jury of seven in the civil trial will weigh the arguments.

The Prydes and the Petersons were the only eligible families who didn't accept their share of an $11 million state settlement.

A state panel that investigated the shootings concluded that officials erred in not sending an alert earlier. The lag in issuing a campus warning also brought Virginia Tech a $55,000 fine from the U.S. Education Department. The school is appealing.

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