On November 30th, 2021, Ethan Crumbley, a fifteen-year-old student at Oxford High School in Oxford, Michigan, opened fire in a school hallway. Four students died; six students and one teacher were injured. The tragedy sent shockwaves through the community and country. However, in the following days, information regarding the context of the shooting created further shockwaves. On December 3rd, Crumbley’s parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter. According to NPR, on the day of the shooting, the Crumbleys were called to Oxford High to discuss Ethan’s behavior after he was found making “a disturbing, violent drawing described by law enforcement as depicting a gun, a bullet and a bleeding person.” The Crumbleys refused to take Ethan home. They had also recently purchased a gun and given Ethan access to it. Soon questions also emerged about the school’s actions prior to the shooting. Given what they knew, could they have prevented this tragedy? And if so, are school officials liable for what happened? To answer these questions, one must examine school liability and on-campus violence.
The History of School Liability and On-Campus Violence
According to an NPR report, taking legal action against a school in these cases is highly difficult. In fact, experts consulted for the article agreed that “criminal liability for school employees in school shooting cases is essentially unheard of.” In an interview with the New York Times, Youngstown State University’s Chuck Vergon, an expert in education law, described how difficult it is to hold school officials legally accountable in these situations. According to Vergon, in order to hold schools legally responsible, the court would need to demonstrate that their behavior reached the standard of “gross negligence.” This, Vergon explained, would mean proving that the school’s response to a threat amounted to “wanton and willful disregard” for the security and safety of students and faculty. “It is historically very challenging,” Vergon told the New York Times, “to hold a school district legally responsible for a shooting.” Vergon noted that Washington’s Marysville School district ended up settling a case in 2014. In this instance, a substitute teacher received information about a threat. Later, the student in question shot five classmates in the cafeteria, killing four. Though the teacher initially said that she warned school officials, no evidence of this report existed. Subsequent information indicated that she neglected to notify the school. Therefore, the school might have been found legally liable. The District settled the lawsuit, paying the families of the four students who died and one who was injured $18 million.
Criminal Liability and Schools
The question therefore becomes one of who knew what when – and what they did with that information. In order to prove criminal liability on the part of school officials, intent is key. One would have to prove that school officials intended to commit a crime. In an article in EdWeek, defense attorney David Steingold stated that there may indeed be negligence in this instance. However, Steingold doesn’t expect charges to be drawn. “You would have to show specific intent,” Steingold told EdWeek. “No one on the staff intended to commit a crime.” George Washington University’s Catherine J. Ross agrees. Ross, an education law specialist, told NPR that prosecutors “would have to find a criminal state of mind and intent to not protect people. And I find it unimaginable that such an intent existed,” Ross told NPR. “The negligence would have to have been so shocking that no remotely careful school administrator could have made those decisions.”
How May the School Be Criminally Liable?
In all likelihood, school officials did what their training told them to do based on the information they had at the time. For example, Carolyn Stone, who is an expert on the ethical issues school counselors face, explains that the school counselor was not guilty of criminal negligence. Stone told the Associated Press that the counselor didn’t know that the Crumbleys had just purchased a gun. The fact that the counselor didn’t have this information shows she wasn’t criminally negligent when she decided to keep Crumbley in school. “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 while discussing the counselor’s decision not to send Crumbley to an empty house without supervision. Furthermore, Throne states that the counselors did not “believe the student might harm others based on his behavior, responses and demeanor, which appeared calm.”
Civil Liability and Schools
In terms of civil liability, in many states, sovereign immunity protects schools from lawsuits. Sovereign immunity is a legal principle that says government entities cannot be sued. As a public school, in Michigan, Oxford High School would be protected by sovereign immunity. Individual people who work for the school, though, may indeed be sued. However, according to NPR, in order to win this kind of lawsuit, one must prove “gross negligence” on the part of the employees. Under Michigan law, that would mean “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” Therefore, according to the New York Times, “a potential lawsuit would probably turn on the question of whether the school took strong enough action to protect students after a teacher happened to see Mr. Crumbley’s disturbing drawing, which included a gun, a person who had been shot and a plea for help.”
How May the School Be Civilly Liable?
Again, the question of intent is important. In a civil lawsuit, school officials can easily argue that they were concerned for the welfare of their students. They could also argue that their decisions, made according to the information they had at the time, did not directly cause the shooting. However, in the New York Times article, experts including Mike Kelly and Catherine J. Ross note that the Michigan shooting is a rare case. According to Ross, a key question in civil cases such as this is whether it was “foreseeable that violence could follow what we’ve discovered.” In this instance, Ross says that it was. The next question, according to Ross, is whether the school could’ve taken action to stop the violence from happening. Again, in this instance, Ross says that the answer to that question is yes.
On the other hand, defense lawyer Mike Kelly told NPR that sovereign immunity laws would probably shield the school from civil liability. However, this doesn’t mean that the school is completely absolved of all responsibility. Kelly states that there will probably be “an acknowledgement that these were things that should have been done or could have been done, and that the school knew that they had those remedies available, and they didn’t use them.”
Prevention Is Key
The best way to stop school shootings is to prevent the situation from happening – and very early on. As the tragic facts of the Michigan shooting demonstrates, students considering violent acts often perform internet research. Like Ethan Crumbley, they may also make related posts on social media, or create another form of digital record, as Crumbly recorded a video of himself. Screen monitoring software like LearnSafe helps schools detect instances like these. LearnSafe can also detect threats of violence both online and offline. LearnSafe’s Digital Safety Representatives review captures that might require attention from a district’s e-safety analysts. Furthermore, incidents regarding an immediate threat are reported as soon as they are identified. LearnSafe also identifies students who may be experiencing behavioral issues or concerns, allowing schools to help these students find the help they need.