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Va. University, College Leaders Defend Va. Tech’s Steger

RICHMOND, Va.—Virginia’s public university and community college presidents argue in a state Supreme Court filing that Virginia Tech’s president should have immunity from any civil action stemming from the 2007 massacre on his Blacksburg campus.

The 24 higher education leaders argue that the state’s sovereign immunity should be extended to President Charles Steger, as well as themselves, in a friend-of-the-court brief in an appeal the justices are expected to hear this summer.

The case involves the parents of two students killed in the April 16, 2007, mass shootings who want Steger go on trial for his actions on the day a student gunman went on a rampage and killed 32 students and faculty before killing himself.

The parents won a negligence suit against the state in March 2012, but Steger was excluded from the suit not based on the state’s definition of sovereign immunity but on another legal issue, which is also subject to appeal.

Sovereign immunity in Virginia extends to “high-level governmental officials,” including public high school principals and superintendents. An attorney for the presidents argues that privilege should extend to college and university presidents.

An attorney who filed the amicus brief for the presidents argues that the state’s educational leaders should have that protection “as they exercise supreme administrative control over the various schools, departments and branches of their respective institutions.”

“They oversee thousands of employees, make budget as well as curriculum decisions, and bear ultimate responsibility for the education and well-being of every student enrolled,” Chuck James wrote in the brief filed Monday.

In an interview Monday, James said the lack of sovereign immunity for college and university leaders has a potential “chilling effect” on their actions and could negatively affect the recruitment of higher education leaders for fear they could be exposed to personal liability.

Steger, who has announced his retirement, was the focus of the parents’ negligence lawsuit because of his actions on the day of the massacre, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The suit was based on Steger’s decision to delay alerting the wider campus of the first shootings by Seung-Hui Cho. Thirty people were killed at a classroom building two hours after Cho shot two students in a dorm.

Steger and other officials testified that law enforcement officials on the scene of the first shootings concluded they were an isolated act of violence, a likely domestic dispute, and the gunman did not pose a threat to the larger campus.

Jurors awarded the parents of Erin Nicole Peterson and Julian K. Pryde $4 million each, but a judge later reduced that to the cap on damages against the state to $100,000 each.

Robert T. Hall, the parents’ attorney, has appealed to the Supreme Court to put Steger on trial.

“By signing on to this brief these university presidents seem to contend they are above the law and can’t be held accountable by the courts even for intentional violations of the law,” Hall wrote in an email to The Associated Press on Tuesday.

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