All the money in the world won’t bring back their daughter Erin, but Celeste and Grafton Peterson at least have the satisfaction of knowing that Virginia Tech was officially found partly culpable in the April 16, 2007 massacre that killed 32 students.
In June 2008, most of the families of the victims settled with the university. But the agreement allowed Virginia Tech to deny liability for the tragedy — and that was something the Petersons could not abide. The parents of victim Julia Pryde felt likewise, so both families brought a civil lawsuit against the state, claiming that lives could have been saved had VT acted quicker to alert students that a shooter was on campus.
“We had to because what Virginia Tech did was wrong,” said Celeste Peterson. “There was nothing else we could do. We couldn’t sign the document with the other families, absolving them of blame.”
“My husband kept me strong and determined through this whole thing,” she said. “He was the driving force behind this — we had to do it for Erin.”
The morning of the killings, the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, began his rampage by shooting two people in a campus dormitory. But school officials believed the incorrect police theory that these murders were domestic in nature — probably committed by a jealous boyfriend of one of these victims.
So they didn’t send out a mass e-mail to the students, warning them about the gunman, until almost 10 minutes after Cho began shooting students in Norris Hall. Among the victims were Westfield High grads Reema Samaha and Erin Peterson.
“Two-and-a-half hours went by before all the students were notified,” said Celeste Peterson. “[School officials] said they had no information to pass on. But they knew at 7:30 a.m. there were two dead and a gunman on the loose — they knew right away.”
It took a long time for the lawsuit to come to court but, last Wednesday, March 14, in Christiansburg, a jury found Virginia Tech negligent. Not knowing that state law requires monetary awards in civil cases to be capped at $100,000, the jurors awarded $4 million to each of the two families that had filed suit. Virginia then filed a legal document to have the awards decreased accordingly.
Still, it was a victory. The university has already changed its notification procedures; and, said Peterson, holding VT accountable for its part in the tragedy is “something Erin would have done because it helps other children become safer on college campuses.”
Overall, she said, “I don’t have any hard feelings toward Virginia Tech. Erin was flourishing there and she loved it. And a lot of the scholarships we give in her name go to Virginia Tech. But what the school did that day just wasn’t right. No one likes to go to court. But we weren’t the only ones — the town, the panel report, etc. — that said they should have warned the children.”
Calling VT a “great and reputable college,” Peterson said she therefore was “disappointed in the lack of timely communication. They didn’t use those same standards when it came to the notification. We can’t say this would have saved Erin’s life, but it would have given her a running start. She was doing well in French so, instead of going to class that day [where she was shot and killed], she would have gone back to sleep.”
Basically, she said, “You’re a college responsible for 36,000 people — most not adults. You enticed them to want to come there, so they trust you. And the kids entrusted the Virginia Tech administration to keep them safe.”
Peterson said the triumph in court last week “was more symbolic than anything. We won’t see that money for a long time and I believe the state will appeal. But it’s not about the money — it’s more about the decision.”
Meanwhile, she and her husband are still raising money for the Erin Peterson Fund, which provides financial assistance to deserving students via scholarships and grants. To contribute, go to HYPERLINK "http://www.erinpetersonfund.org" www.erinpetersonfund.org. And on April 15 at Mount Olive Baptist Church, they’ll hold their annual Gospel celebration in remembrance of their daughter and only child.
Regarding the jury’s monetary award, Peterson said, “Grafton and I made no plans for the money — we never even discussed it. But the only way of levying punishment [in this lawsuit] is by money. If at the end of the case they said, ‘Erin, you can go home,’ that would be the reward we would have wanted. But it’s not possible — we can’t get her back.”