Could School Staff Be Charged?

A prosecutor continues to criticize the decision to keep a teenager in a Michigan school before a shooting that killed four students last week, raising questions about whether staff and the school district will face liability — criminal or civil — in the tragedy.

“We should all be looking at the events that led up to that horrific event,” Karen McDonald told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “And as a community, as a school, as a nation talk about what we could have done different so that didn’t happen. And in this case a lot could have been done different.”

Ethan Crumbley, 15, is charged with shooting fellow students at Oxford High School after a meeting with counselors and his parents. A teacher was troubled by a drawing of a gun, a bullet and a person who appeared to have been shot, along with messages stating “My life is useless” and “The world is dead,” investigators said.

A look at some of the issues:

Could School Staff Face Charges?

The prosecutor has sharpened her comments about the school. Two days after the Nov. 30 shooting, she said she hadn’t seen any “criminal culpability” by staff and was reluctant to blame anyone besides Crumbley and his parents.

But her tone was different Monday.

“That’s an investigative process that I’ll leave to law enforcement. I can tell you that there is outrage in the community,” said McDonald, questioning why Crumbley’s parents were allowed to make the ultimate decision to keep him in school that day.

Oxford Superintendent Tim Throne said counselors met with the boy and his parents on the day of the shooting. They concluded he was not a risk to himself or others, according to Throne, but told James and Jennifer Crumbley to get him outside counseling within 48 hours or they would call child welfare officials.

The Crumbleys “flatly refused” to take their son home, said Throne, who plans a separate investigation of what happened that day.

Timeline: Key Moments Surrounding the School Shooting

Here is a timeline of events before the rampage and what has happened since:
Friday, Nov. 26: James Crumbley buys a 9mm Sig Sauer from Acme Shooting Goods in Oxford, according to Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald. His 15-year-old son Ethan later posts a photo on Instagram of himself holding the semi-automatic handgun, writing: “Just got my new beauty today. SIG SAUER 9mm. Any questions I will answer.” He includes an emoji of a smiling face with heart eyes.
Saturday, Nov. 27: Jennifer Crumbley writes on social media that it is a “mom and son day testing out his new Christmas present,” the prosecutor says.
Monday, Nov. 29: A teacher sees Ethan, a sophomore at Oxford High, searching online for ammunition with his cellphone during class and reports it to school officials, McDonald says. Ethan meets with a school counselor and another staff member. He says he and his mother recently went to a shooting range and that shooting sports are a family hobby, according to Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Tim Throne.
School personnel call his mother, leave a voicemail and email her. She does not respond. While exchanging text messages with her son, she writes: “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”
That night, Ethan Crumbley records a video in which he discusses killing students, according to sheriff’s Lt. Tim Willis.
Tuesday, Nov. 30: A teacher finds a note on Ethan’s desk that alarms her enough to take a photo, the prosecutor says. It includes a drawing of a handgun and the words: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” Also depicted is a bullet with the words “blood everywhere” above a person who appears to have been shot twice and is bleeding. A laughing emoji is drawn below the figure. The note also says “my life is useless” and “the world is dead.” The teacher reports the information to school counselors and the dean.
A counselor removes Ethan from the classroom and takes him to the office with his backpack. The counselor obtains the drawing, but Ethan has already scratched out portions. He says the drawing is part of a video game he is designing and that he wants a career as a video game designer, the superintendent says.
The parents are summoned to the school for a meeting that occurs around 10 a.m. While the school tries to reach them, Ethan remains in the office for an hour-and-a-half as counselors continue to observe and speak with him, Throne says. Ethan expresses concern about missing homework assignments and asks for his science homework, which he works on while waiting. The counselors do not believe he will harm others based on his behavior, demeanor and responses, according to the superintendent.
The parents arrive and are shown the note. The counselors ask Ethan about his potential for self-harm or harming others. They again conclude he is not a risk due to his answers, which are affirmed by the parents. The parents are advised that they are required to get him counseling within 48 hours or the school will contact Children’s Protective Services. They refuse a request to take their son home for the day and leave without him, apparently to return to work, Throne says. He returns to the classroom rather than go “home to an empty house,” which the superintendent says is because he had no prior disciplinary infractions.
About 12:51 p.m., Ethan emerges from a bathroom with the gun his father bought four days before. He fires at students in the hallway, killing four and wounding six students and one teacher. Deputies capture him within minutes of the shooting. When news of an active shooter becomes public, Jennifer Crumbley texts her son at 1:22 p.m.: “Ethan don’t do it.” Fifteen minutes later, at 1:37 p.m., James Crumbley calls 911 to report that a gun was missing from his house and he believes his son may be the shooter. The gun had been kept unlocked in a drawer in the parents’ bedroom, McDonald says.
Wednesday, Dec. 1: Ethan is charged as an adult with murder and terrorism.
Friday, Dec. 3: James and Jennifer Crumbley are charged with involuntary manslaughter. Authorities cannot find them, and a manhunt is launched.
Saturday, Dec. 4: The Crumbleys are arrested around 1:30 a.m. after being caught hiding at a commercial building in Detroit. They enter not guilty pleas during a Zoom hearing, and a judge sets bond at $500,000 for each.
The superintendent announces there will be a third-party review of all events in the past week because the community and families “deserve a full, transparent accounting of what occurred.”

“I see a lot of negligence, but I don’t foresee charges against anyone in the school,” said David Steingold, a Detroit-area defense attorney. “You would have to show specific intent. No one on the staff intended to commit a crime.”

As for others, the gun was legally sold by a local dealer to James Crumbley, according to investigators. The gun manufacturing industry is protected from civil lawsuits for its products, according to the Giffords Law Center, which tracks gun issues.

What Is a Counselor’s Role?

When faced with the drawing and writings found in Oxford, a counselor would be concerned about suicidal thoughts, not signs of a possible mass homicide, said Carolyn Stone of the University of North Florida, an expert in ethical and legal issues for school counselors.

“When you see that, you call parents, and that’s what this counselor did,” Stone said. “When we share, the parents then exercise custody and control over the child and get them help. Our job is to make sure parents know their child is in trouble.”

Crumbley’s parents never told counselors about buying a gun just days earlier, the superintendent said.

“The counselors made a judgment based on their professional training and clinical experience and did not have all the facts we now know,” Throne said, referring to keeping Crumbley in school instead of sending him home to an empty house.

The Crumbley parents are charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Could the School Face Civil Lawsuits?

The shooting left four students dead and injured six more students and a staff member. Students barricaded themselves in classrooms and even fled through a first-floor window. The prosecutor said the entire school was “terrorized.”

Personal-injury lawyers expressed doubt that the Oxford district could be successfully sued for letting Crumbley stay in school. That’s because Michigan law sets a high bar to wring liability out of public schools and other arms of government.

“You have to show that the administration or faculty members were grossly negligent, meaning they had a reckless disregard for whether an injury was likely to take place,” said attorney A. Vince Colella.

Even if gross negligence can be demonstrated, someone who sues must also show it was a proximate cause of death or injury, he said.

“Because the staff didn’t hold the trigger, they can’t be held liable because of government immunity. … They knew he was distraught. Immunity is counterintuitive to public safety,” Colella said.

Recent Data: School Shootings

Education Week journalists began in 2018 tracking shootings on K-12 school property that resulted in firearm-related injuries or deaths. There is no single right way of calculating numbers like this, and the human toll is impossible to measure. We hope only to provide reliable information to help inform discussions, debates, and paths forward.
Below, you can find big-picture data on school shootings since 2018. (This chart will be updating as new information becomes available.)

See Also: School Shootings This Year: How Many and Where

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