First, a teacher found Ethan Crumbley looking for ammunition online. The next day there was an alarming note on his desk: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”
School officials met Mr. Crumbley (15) and his parents and told them to begin counseling within 48 hours. After his parents opposed taking him home, the drivers let him stay at school.
Shortly afterwards, Mr. Crumbley killed four students, according to the Oakland County, Michigan district attorney who staged that astonishing sequence of events on Friday as he announced the involuntary manslaughter charge against the parents.
Now Oxford High School’s actions are also under scrutiny, raising questions about the school’s responsibility and whether there could be legal ramifications for directors. Asked if her office was investigating the behavior of school officials, District Attorney Karen M. McDonald said, “The investigation is ongoing.”
Catherine J. Ross, a law professor at George Washington University and an expert on student rights, said she found the school’s response “really astonishing.”
It was well within the school’s right to require Mr Crumbley, who has since pleaded not guilty to murder and terrorism, to leave campus, Professor Ross said.
If the parents refused to take Mr. Crumbley home, it was the school’s legal and ethical responsibility, Professor Ross said, to “remove the student from the classroom and place in a safe place — safe from other people and safe.” for himself. .”
School officials have defended their actions. In a videotaped statement posted online Thursday, Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Tim Throne said Mr Crumbley had no disciplinary history. “No discipline was needed,” said Mr. Throne. “There are no high school discipline records.”
But Ms. McDonald suggested there were unanswered questions.
Asked if school staff should have reported Mr Crumbley to police immediately, she said: “Anyone who had a chance to stop this tragedy should have done so. The question is what they knew and when they knew it.”
A district spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Chris Dorn, a school security adviser with the nonprofit Safe Havens International, said it is advisable for schools to call the police if there is a suspicion that a student is armed.
Mr Dorn has investigated missteps that have led to past school shootings, finding that administrators sometimes worry that calling the police violates a student’s rights. Other times they just haven’t taken a threat seriously enough.
“Part of it is that people are generally not confrontational,” said Mr Dorn. “School staff are often slow to recognize danger because it is not part of their daily lives.”
While Oxford High School held active target practice several times a year, “there is a lot of focus on responding to the active shooter, but not necessarily on its prevention,” he added.
Holding a school district legally responsible for a shooting has historically been a major challenge, said Chuck Vergon, a professor of education law at Youngstown State University.
A majority of past school shootings have included some sort of warning ahead of potential violence, he said. But it is difficult in most state courts to meet the required standard for proving gross negligence on the part of school officials — that they acted out of “deliberate and willful disregard” for the safety or welfare of others, he said. “That standard has usually protected school officials from civil liability in most cases of school shootings.”
But the Oxford school system will most likely face years of lawsuits over the shooting, if recent history is any guide.
“I definitely think there’s going to be a lawsuit,” said Mike Kelly, a lawyer in Northville, Michigan, who specializes in representing students who are expelled from school — including a student who was recently expelled from another Michigan district for having a hunting trip. rifle in the car he had parked on the school grounds.
“There is some blame and responsibility on the part of the school here,” said Mr. kelly.
In one notable case, when a substitute teacher was told of a threat but took no action, the insurance company for Marysville School District in Washington paid $18 million to the families of four dead students, as well as one student who was injured.
Although settlements in school districts are not rare, families of victims face obstacles.
In 2018, a Connecticut judge dismissed claims filed by the parents of two victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, which killed 20 first-graders and six adults. The judge concluded that the school district was immune from such lawsuits.
This year, schools in Broward County, Florida, reached a $25 million settlement with both survivors and families of the victims of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, which killed 17 people and injured another 17. The settlement followed a court decision capping the school system’s liability at $300,000 if the victims had won at trial.
In the Michigan shooting, a potential lawsuit would likely lead to the question of whether the school took strong enough action to protect students after a teacher saw the disturbing drawing of Mr. Crumbley, which included a gun, a person shot and a plea for help. .
The fact that mr. Crumbley would have no disciplinary penalty creates what Mr. Kelly called “a gray area” and could play a central role in any lawsuit alleging the school was guilty of not removing him from campus.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said school officials should have searched Mr. Crumbley’s bag for weapons.
But she said steps to prevent gun violence begin long before anyone brings a gun onto school grounds. Ultimately, it is legislators, not school officials, she argued, who have the power to prevent shootings by passing safe-weapon-storage laws or red flag laws that allow police to temporarily confiscate firearms from people killed by a police officer. judge as a danger to themselves or others.
“You put educators in an impossible position because they don’t really have the resources to proactively prevent guns from entering the school,” Ms Watts said.